What is Ambiguity?
What is ambiguity? Ambiguity is the quality of having multiple meanings or multiple possible interpretations. If something is ambiguous, it might be understood in two or more different ways. It is essential for media literacy to spot ambiguity and parse it, as examples of ambiguity exist in literature, poetry, film, news media, and even conversation.
Definition of Ambiguous
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the ''ambiguous'' definition is something that is ''able to be understood in more than one way'' or that has ''more than one possible meaning.'' Something ambiguous can also be something that is not clearly expressed or understood. ''Ambiguous'' is the adjectival form of the word, while ''ambiguity'' is the noun. It is important to note that ambiguity can be deliberately created by a speaker or writer or created unintentionally through vagueness or mistaken meaning.
Lexical Ambiguity vs. Syntactic Ambiguity
At the sentence level, two types of ambiguity can easily trip up readers. These are called lexical and syntactic ambiguity. Lexical ambiguity refers to unclear or plural meanings in individual words. Such ambiguity is often the source of comedy, as in the following examples:
- ''Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend; inside of a dog it's too dark to read.'' This quote, commonly attributed to Groucho Marx, plays on the ambiguity of the word ''outside,'' in this case meaning both ''besides'' and ''on the outside of.''
- ''I have a really nice stepladder. Sadly, I never knew my real ladder.'' Attributed to comedian Harry Hill; this joke plays on the two meanings of ''step:'' a stepladder as in a ladder with a few steps, and a stepladder as in a step-father.
- ''The priest is going to marry me'' plays on the two meanings of the verb ''to marry:'' to get married to someone, and to marry someone to their spouse in the role of an officiant.
- ''The fisherman went to the bank'' is based on the ambiguity of the word ''bank,'' which in this case could mean a financial institution or the side of a river.
Syntactic ambiguity, sometimes called structural ambiguity, occurs when the structure of a sentence creates several possible meanings or ambiguous meanings. News headlines are prone to syntactic ambiguity, as in the following humorous examples:
- ''Kids Make Nutritious Snacks,'' means that kids are making nutritious snacks; not eating children is nutritious.
- ''Queen Mary Having Bottom Scraped'' refers to a boat, the Queen Mary, being refitted, not a person.
- ''Eye Drops Off Shelf'' means that eye drops have been taken off the shelf, rather than body parts falling to the ground.
Other examples of syntactic ambiguity include sentences that can alter their meaning through punctuation. For instance, consider this joke: A panda walks into a bar. He eats a sandwich, shoots the waiter, and then leaves. The restaurant patrons are surprised to see a panda acting so strangely, but when they look pandas up in a badly punctuated encyclopedia, they find an entry that says that a panda ''eats, shoots and leaves'' instead of the correct punctuation, which would be ''eats shoots and leaves.'' Another example is the difference in meaning between the sentences ''Let's eat Grandma!'' and ''Let's eat, Grandma!''
There are hundreds of ambiguity-examples found in literature, poetry, and even conversation. There are also many reasons why people make use of ambiguity. Some do so unintentionally in conversation, creating confusion. Others use ambiguity in their writing to create humor, mystery or leave elements of a work open to multiple interpretations. Some writers have even used ambiguity to avoid censorship. Ambiguity serves many purposes, and it cannot be ignored: it demands that readers either choose an interpretation or deliberately accept the ambiguous nature of an idea.
Ambiguity in Literature
Writers commonly employ ambiguity in literature for a wide variety of reasons. The literary ambiguity definition usually applies to ambiguous instances in word choice, character action, and symbolism. Ambiguity examples in literature sometimes spark significant debate among readers. Some examples of ambiguity in literature include:
|Work and Author||Context||Quote||Purpose of Ambiguity|
|Hamlet by William Shakespeare||Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, responds poorly to his mother and uncle marrying shortly after his father's death. He may be going insane, or he may be faking insanity; the play is ambiguous on that score, and different productions have to make choices about how to portray Hamlet's madness||''Rosencrantz: He does confess he feels himself distracted; / But from what cause he will by no means speak.''||The purpose of ambiguity in Hamlet is to create intrigue and to make Hamlet a more fascinating and mysterious character.|
|The Charioteer by Mary Renault||Ralph Lanyon, an English schoolboy, is talking to a fellow student called Laurie (nicknamed Spud) shortly before he knows he will have to leave school because of a scandal.||''That's all, goodbye. What is it, then? Come here a moment... Now you see what I mean, Spud. It would never have done, would it? Well, goodbye.''||This scene is very oblique, but the implication may be that the two characters in the scene kiss in the ellipsis of this quote. Renault was writing a book with gay characters but had to be very ambiguous in her writing style to avoid censorship, as The Charioteer was first published in 1953.|
|Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut||The protagonist of the novel suffers from PTSD because of his experiences in the bombing of Dresden. As such, his story is ambiguous, leaving many elements to audience interpretation.||''All this happened, more or less.''||This is the opening line of the book. It serves to establish audience expectations and to allow readers to connect more deeply to the topic.|
There are many reasons writers include ambiguity in their work and many different effects that ambiguous writing can have on readers.
Ambiguity in Film
Just as there can be ambiguity in literature, filmmakers often employ ambiguity to significant effect. A famous example of ambiguity in cinema is the ending of Inception (2010), directed by Christopher Nolan. The film's final shot casts doubt on whether the protagonist is experiencing real life or whether he is still in the dream world in which much of the film is set. Ambiguity is also often used at the ending of horror and thriller movies to make it unclear exactly what fate awaited the characters. The Thing (1982), Saint Maud (2019), and Annihilation (2018) all have ambiguous endings that leave audiences asking questions.
Ambiguity in Poetry
Ambiguity in poetry is perhaps even more common than ambiguity in literature, as poetry is built on figurative language and is usually open to interpretation. Examples of ambiguous poems include:
|Poem and Author||Quote||Interpretations and Purpose|
|''My Last Duchess'' by Robert Browning||''Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, / Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without / Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together.''||This poem is about a man who is showing off a portrait of his late wife. While it is never explicitly stated, the poem implies that the speaker had his wife killed because he suspected infidelity. Browning uses ambiguity to unsettle and surprise readers|
|''The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'' by T.S. Eliot||''Do I dare / Disturb the universe? / In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.''||The speaker of this poem is wrestling with some important question, but what that question is never becomes clear. Some believe that he is agonizing over proposing marriage to someone, while others interpret his hesitation as existential.|
|''You Fit Into Me'' by Margaret Atwood||''you fit into me / like a hook into an eye / a fish hook / an open eye''||This terse poem creates an ambiguous look at a relationship between two people. The first line makes it sound like a loving relationship, but the rest of the poem makes it seem violent and horrifying.|
Poems are well suited to ambiguity because of their figurative nature and because it is common for poets to leave certain things unsaid so that audiences can fill in the gaps for themselves.
Ambiguity in Conversation
Some ambiguity examples are prevalent in everyday conversation. Often, these examples are instances of lexical or syntactic ambiguity. They can impede meaning and cause comprehension issues. Examples of such ambiguity include sentences like ''I saw her duck,'' which could mean that someone saw a girl duck down or that they saw her pet duck. Another ambiguity that can creep into the conversation is garden path sentences because they lead the listener up the garden path or confuse them. These sentences rely on ambiguity, usually of verbs and adjectives. Examples include:
- The old man the boat. This means that ''the old,'' meaning ''the old people,'' ''man,'' meaning ''work on,'' the boat.
- The mouse the cat the dog bit chased died. This sentence is particularly tough. A dog bit a cat; the cat chased a mouse; the mouse died.
- The horse raced past the barn fell. The ambiguity here comes from the word ''raced,'' which means ''which was raced (or ridden fast).'' Therefore, the horse (that was raced past the barn) has fallen.
Other forms of ambiguity can come from the structure of English. Telling someone ''we are going to the movies tonight,'' might prompt them to ask, ''you and me, or you and your wife?'' This is due to the ambiguity inherent in the pronoun ''we,'' which does not specify who is included and who is excluded.
Ambiguity occurs when more than one possible interpretation of a sentence, word, or piece of writing or media exists. Writers might use ambiguity to enrich their work, allow for multiple interpretations as a form of artistic expression, or even help audiences connect to a topic in various ways. Ambiguity cannot be ignored and must usually be analyzed to form an interpretation. In literary works and poetry, ambiguity can occur in characters' actions, words, and the use of symbols and figurative language.
Newspaper headlines may fall prey to ambiguity with phrases like ''Eye Drops Off Shelf'' or ''Kids Make Nutritious Snacks.'' Ambiguity also occurs in everyday conversation through the use of unclear pronouns, garden path sentences, or lexical or syntactic ambiguity. These forms of ambiguity can be confusing, bothersome, or humorous, depending on context.
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What does ambiguity mean?
Ambiguity refers to instances where a sentence, literary work, or piece of media can have multiple possible interpretations. It can also refer to instances where meaning is not clear or is misunderstood.
What are some examples of ambiguity?
Examples of ambiguity include garden path sentences, lexical ambiguity, syntactic ambiguity, and literary ambiguity. There are also many examples of ambiguity in film, poetry, and even news media.
What is an ambiguous sentence?
An example of an ambiguous sentence might be ''James got lunch ready for his daughter wearing a summer dress.'' The sentence is not clear on whether James or his daughter is wearing the dress.
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