How to Avoid Ambiguity
- Be careful with prepositions. The thing about prepositional phrases (such as “he murderer killed the student with a book”) is that it’s not always clear what they’re modifying. Look at the “book” example from section 2; the ambiguity in that sentence is entirely based on the preposition “with.” Does it modify “killed” or “student”? Could go either way. It’s always important to be careful with your prepositions.
- Use commas correctly! Commas exist primarily to resolve syntactic ambiguity. If you’re worried that your sentences are too ambiguous, try working on your grammar and punctuation, especially when it comes to commas.
- Don’t assume that your reader will interpret things correctly. What you say might be clear enough to you, but the reader might interpret it differently. If you leave room for ambiguity, there’s every chance that the reader will interpret that ambiguity in ways you didn’t intend. To write clearly you need to develop the skill of seeing your own writing from a reader’s perspective.
When to Avoid Ambiguity
Avoid ambiguity as much as possible in formal essays. Of course, sometimes things will accidentally be left unclear, and that’s OK. But as much as you can, try to make sure that your sentences have only one possible meaning, and aren’t open to the wrong interpretation. This is one of the reasons that you should use specific words and a lot of concrete detail. If you say that a party was “great,” that could mean anything depending on who you are, but if you describe the party in concrete detail, we will know more!
This is very important when it comes to your thesis statement! If the thesis statement is ambiguous, then readers won’t know exactly what the main idea is, and won’t be able to follow the argument. Make sure that your thesis is fully explained within the first couple of paragraphs of your essay.
In creative writing, ambiguity is less of a problem, and indeed it can even be a benefit. But you want to be deliberate about your ambiguities even here. You can leave things open-ended as much as you want, but don’t accidentally leave your reader hanging or wondering what you mean.
This is true for narrative ambiguity (and somewhat for semantic ambiguity), but it’s really not true for syntactic ambiguity. An ambiguous sentence structure is just difficult to read, and that’s never a good thing; your stories and words can be ambiguous in creative writing, but your sentence structures really shouldn’t be.