I. What is Ambiguity?
Ambiguity (pronounced ‘am-bih-GYOO-ih-tee’) is an idea or situation that can be understood in more than one way. This extends from ambiguous sentences (which could mean one thing or another) up to ambiguous storylines and ambiguous arguments. It’s often viewed in a negative light, since we value clarity in writing and ambiguity is the opposite of clarity; however, sometimes ambiguity can be a good thing, especially in poetry and storytelling.
Ambiguity is similar to “vagueness,” except that ambiguity refers to something having multiple possible meanings, while vagueness refers to a general lack of clarity; something vague might not have any clear meanings while something ambiguous might have several possible clear meanings.
II. Types of Ambiguity
There are many types of ambiguity, but these are a few of the most important:
Semantic Ambiguity, also known as Polysemy
When a word has multiple meanings, this is called “polysemy.” Nearly all words in English are polysemous, meaning that many sentences have semantic ambiguity. We can usually resolve the ambiguity using context, but sometimes this doesn’t work. The word ‘play’ is a great example of polysemy. You can play a role, play a guitar, play a game, or play the fool (among other meanings). In most contexts, you wouldn’t have any question about which one you are talking about. But if you were hanging out with both a guitar and an mp3 player and someone asked you to ‘play’ some music, it would be ambiguous!
This sort of ambiguity comes out of the structure of the sentence rather than the words. For example, “The murderer killed the student with a book.” We know what all these words mean individually, but altogether they are ambiguous; was the book used as a murder weapons? Or was the victim carrying a book during the attack? As we’ll see in later examples, this kind of ambiguity can easily be caused by poor grammar.
This is when a plotline could mean several things; the storyteller doesn’t let you know explicitly. For example, a relationship between two characters could be ambiguous if it’s not clear whether or not they like each other.
III. Examples of Ambiguity
I went out in the woods and found a bat.
Was it a little furry winged creature? Or a baseball bat? Because the word “bat” is polysemous, it provides us with a very simple example of semantic ambiguity.
The end . . . ?
There’s an ambiguous ending in the classic film The Blob (1958). When the movie closes, the town has successfully defended itself against the monstrous all-consuming blob; but the question mark at the end leaves open the possibility that the monster isn’t dead, and might come back to life. Of course, a lot of horror movies end this way!
“The word good has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.” (G.K. Chesterton)
This quote explores the polysemy of the word “good.” If you simply said, “Wow, he’s really good” without any context, a reader couldn’t know which sense of “good” you meant; it would be ambiguous.
IV. The Value and Risks of Ambiguity
The risks of ambiguity are quite obvious; the reader can misunderstand you! And some readers find it frustrating when they can’t figure out exactly what you mean. So it shouldn’t be hard to understand why ambiguity can be a bad thing.
But why is ambiguity sometimes valuable? Well, for one thing, ambiguity gives us more to discuss or think about. If everything in a movie is completely straightforward, there’s not much to talk about afterward! In addition, ambiguity is simply more realistic. The real world is not cut-and-dry, so it makes sense if our stories leave a little room for interpretation.
On a more sophisticated level, ambiguity can make a story or poem “work on multiple levels.” That means that it conveys more than one meaning at the same time, on purpose. It might be a love story and a political statement at the same time, for example. We’ll see this in more detail in section 7.
V. Examples of Ambiguity in Literature
Robert Frost wrote a poem called Mending Wall, which is an ambiguous title (syntactic ambiguity). On the one hand, it could refer to someone mending a wall. But it could also be a wall that mends. The poem actually works on both levels, since it’s about two neighbors getting together to mend the fence between their properties. But in the course of rebuilding the fence, they also repair their own friendship, so in a sense the wall is mending them just as they mend the wall.
To Serve Man is a short story by Damon Knight. In the story, an alien comes to Earth with a spaceship full of fantastic alien technology. He appears to have come with no purpose other than to help our species thrive, as indicated by the title of an alien book that he carries, with the title To Serve Man. However, a skeptical scientist probes the book more carefully, and ultimately makes a terrible discovery: it’s a cookbook! The word “serve” is semantically ambiguous here, because it could mean “help” or “assist” or “cook and serve for dinner.”
To Serve Man is based on a semantic ambiguity. But it also has a narrative ambiguity! The story actually ends right when the scientist works out the alien’s terrible secret. So we’re left completely in the dark about what happens next. Did the alien successfully cook humankind? Was some kind of resistance organized? The author doesn’t answer these questions, but simply leaves the ending ambiguous.
VI. Examples of Ambiguity in Popular Culture
“How do you make a turtle fast? Take away his food bowl.”
This popular joke is a clear example of a pun using the polysemous word fast. On one level, fast could mean “quick”; on the other level, it could mean “to refrain from eating.” The joke gets its humor by surprising the listener with the unexpected, less predictable, of the two meanings.
“Miners refuse to work after death.” (Newspaper Headline)
This was an actual newspaper headline, referring to a safety controversy at a mine. It’s syntactically ambiguous, because each individual word is quite clear, but taken together they aren’t clear at all. The author certainly meant that the miners were refusing to work after a death at the mine. But the sentence could mean that they were refusing to work after their own death, which of course wouldn’t make sense. Newspaper headlines are famous for this kind of ambiguity because they normally leave out the punctuation and details that might prevent the ambiguity. You can find a list of funny syntactically ambiguous headlines here.
VII. Related Terms
Double Entendre / Pun
A double entendre is a deliberate use of semantic ambiguity. By including a polysemic word or phrase, the speaker gives the sentence two possible meanings. When this is done for humor, it’s called a pun. Double entendres can serve many purposes, but the term is most often used to refer to flirty or “suggestive” ambiguities.
Also known as “doublespeak,” equivocation is when someone (usually a politician or lawyer) speaks in a purposely ambiguous way in order to hide something, confuse people, or simply avoid committing to something. For example, in 1919 Emir Faisal I of Iraq signed an agreement with the Allies stating that he would be given control of “The Arab Lands” after World War I. But after the war, it turned out that this phrase had never been defined; it was left ambiguous. So, Faisal was given a territory far smaller than what he expected.