external image ambiguity.gif
  • some people's comment
  • experts related to ambiguity
  • bad influence of ambiguity
  • unexpected effects of ambiguity
Types of Ambiguity
  • phonological ambiguity
  • lexical ambiguity
  • grammatical ambiguity
The Functions of Ambiguity
  • unintentional ambiguity
  • intentional ambiguity
The Elimination of Ambiguity



Definition of Ambiguity: The quality or state of being ambiguous, doubtfulness or uncertainty, particularly as to the signification of language, arising from its admitting of more than one meaning; an equivocal word or expression."
In my point of view, ambiguity covers many aspects, such as math, words and pictures, the two below for instance. It is difficult for others to understand the speaker properly if his sentences contain too much undermeanings. But some others may feel it splendid to use ambiguity in their works. The essay sets out to analyze ambiguity from its types, functions and how to eliminate unintentional ambiguities.
a young lady or an old woman
a young lady or an old woman

a man or a woman
a man or a woman

  • Some people's comment:
"Upon careful consideration, one cannot but be amazed at the ubiquity of ambiguity in language."- Kess and Hoppe. [1]
"Ambiguity is necessary in some of my stories, not in all. In those, it certainly contributes to the richness of the story. I doubt that thematic closure is never attainable." - Gene Wolfe
"The awareness of the ambiguity of one's highest achievements (as well as one's deepest failures) is a definite symptom of maturity." - Paul Tillich

  • Some experts who have made contribution to Ambiguity:

David Wilkinson external (link 1)
Kess and Hoppe Ambiguity in Psycholinguistics (external link 2)
William Empson Seven Types of Ambiguity (external link 3)

Ambiguity is a specific language phenomenon. Sometimes it causes trouble in communication while sometimes it can represent wit and humor, which makes communication much easier.
  • Bad influence of Ambiguity:
Despite the fact that ambiguity in language is an essential part of language,it is often an obstacle to be ignored or a problem to be solved for people to understand each other. People often use ambiguous words in a sentence, though they may be not realized. They can prevent the sentences receiver from grasping the real meaning of the deliever. Ambiguity is, as far as I am concerned, the origin root of misunderstandings.
  • Unexpected effects of Ambiguity:
If ungeniously used, sometimes ambiguity can convey humor and satirire. (more examples are to be given in the functions of ambiguity)
For example:
A hopeless widower said, nothing can mend a broken heart.
A widow answered, except repairing. [2]
Here the sound of repair /ri'pεə/ is similar to re-pair, so it gives readers more space to imagine.

Types of ambiguity [3]

1. Phonological ambiguity

Ambiguity caused by Liaison
  • eg: an ice pear, a nice pear
Ambiguity caused by pauses
  • eg: He is a lighthouse keeper. He is a light house keeper
Ambiguity caused by Stress
origin phrase
indicated meaning
a mad 'doctor
a doctor with mental disease
a 'mad doctor
a doctor in the psychiatry field
a green 'house
a house that is green
a 'green - house
a glasshouse or hothouse

2. Lexical ambiguity:

  • Polysemy: eg, He is a doctor ( Is he a doctor working in hospital or a man with a PHD? )
  • He is an old friend of mine. ( Is he, who is old, my friend or is he a friend of mine since long time ago? )
  • The baby is crawling upstairs. ( Is the baby crawling upwards to the higher floors or is the baby, who is upstairs, crawling? )

3.Grammatical ambiguity

Possible analysis
The attributive modification is unclear
He is a sad fiction writer.
He is a fiction writer on tragedy.
He is a fiction writer who is low-spirited
The scope of the adverbial modification is unclear
She loves her dog more than her husband.
Her husband loves the dog, and she loves it more. Compared with her dog and her husband, she shows more enthusiasm on her dog .
Prepositional phrases as the adverbial
They will discuss the plan and have the meeting in the classroom.
They will discuss in the classroom about the plan and have the meeting. They will discuss the plan and afterwards they will hold the meeting in the classroom.
The scope of the negation is unclear
I didn't do it to please you.
I didn’t do it in order to please you.
I did it not for the pleasure of you.
Syntactic function of V+ing is unclear
Visiting relatives can be boring.
It is boring to visit relatives. Relatives who come to my home now are boring.)
The relations of the” OF” structure is unclear
The growing of the flowers is wonderful.
The process of the flowers' growing up is wonderful.
To plant flowers is a wonderful thing.
The properties of the subordinate clause is unclear
Tell me if you will come.
Please let me know as soon as you reach here.
Pease let me know whether you will come or not.
Syntactic structure and function is unclear
I found Robert a good teacher.
I have found a good teacher for Robert.
I thought Robert was a good teacher.

The functions of Ambiguity

Above I have mentioned several types of ambiguity, but from a broader aspect, ambiguity can be divided into two categories according to the utterance motivation and effects intentional ambiguity and unintentional ambiguity. Unintentional ambiguity is due to improper usage of language or the carelessness of the user, and it will result in misunderstandings. Unintentional ambiguity obstacles the interpersonal communication and it plays a negative role in social intercourse. By contrast, the intentional ambiguity is arranged on purpose to have a special pragmatic effect. Properly used, intentional ambiguity can make the language lively and humorous.

Eg: a. Customer: I would like to buy a book ,please.
Bookseller: Something light?
Customer: That doesn’t matter. I have my car with me.
The example is a typical one of intentional ambiguity. The bookseller intents to say "some relaxing books", whereas the customer considers the word “light” as "not heavy".

b. Father:“Do you know what happens to liars when they die ?”
Johnny: “Yes , sir ,they lie still.”
The phrase “lie still” can be comprehended as “still tell a lie” and “lie on the ground unmoved”. According to different judgment of the phrase, the two sentences satirize the behavior of the liars incisively and vividly.

c. She is deaf. And almost everyone she meets is blind. Deafness is an appealing disability. Yet it is made even worse by the public’s lack of concern.
Here “blind” does not mean visual despair but “turn a blind eye to”, which means "show no concern". It is a blame for the indifference of the public to the deaf.

The Elimination of Unintentional Ambiguity

  1. Phonetic ambiguity can be eliminated by changing tones, pausing and stressing.
He saw the man 'with the glass.
He saw 'the man with the glass.
2. To eliminate by setting a context, anastrophe and adding necessary words.
For instance, the sentence “The boy greeted the girl who had entered the room with flowers” can be modified as follows:
* With flowers, the boy greeted the girl who had entered the room.
* The boy greeted the girl, who had entered the room.
* The boy greeted the girl who had entered the room with flowers in his (her) hand
3. To exchange with a synonym
She didn’t take my tip.
“tip” can be interpreted as “gratuity” and “advice’. If we exchange “tip” with “money” or “advice”, the meaning will be explicit.


Ambiguity is a natural language phenomenon. Unintentional ambiguities will often obstacle the interpersonal communication and we should avoid it to the greatest extent. But it is impossible to avoid ambiguity completely. As a result, it is very important to understand ambiguity well, which will have a significant meaning in English verbal communication. In the mean time, it is necessary for us to apply the intentional ingeniously to reach an unexpected rhetoric and humorous effects and finally improve our English expression ability.


Please analyze the indicated meanings of the sentences listed below.
1. They can fish.
2. Mr. Smith saw the India dance.
3. She can't bear children so she never wants to talk about them.
4. Would you like to eat some crackers?


http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ambiguity (definition)
http://www.en8848.com.cn/Article/Others/Creativity/58793.html (comments)
http://www.elanso.com/GroupTopic/VmUfRRSYSiKePKIsVIUpUpIi.html (example)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Wilkinson_(ambiguity_expert) (expert)
http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4c634ef9010009dj.html (ambiguity in english)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambiguity (ambiguity in Wikipedia)
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ambiguity/ ( Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy )
http://www.docin.com/p-75739727.html (The origin of the exercises)

Notes :

[1]. Ambiguity in Psycholinguistic publisher: Amsterdam J. Benjamins B.V.,1981.
[2] An example taken from a bolg of a netfriend.
[3] I have taken some examples from Liu Congwei's essay The Category of Ambiguity, Journals of Mudanjiang College Education, No1, 2010.

External links:

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Wilkinson_(ambiguity_expert)
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Types_of_Ambiguity_(Empson)
3. http://www.benjamins.com/cgi-bin/t_bookview.cgi?bookid=P%26b%20II%3A4#toc