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'The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things'

"Nothing is more usual than for philosophers to encroach on the province of grammarians, and to engage in disputes of words, while they imagine they are handling controversies of the deepest importance and concern." - David Hume

"Words: Can't say what they mean don't mean what they say" --Tom Tom Club

Les Poires, as sold separately to cover the expenses of a trial of Le Charivari, after a version published in Le Charivari of January 17, 1834. The drawing was made by Daumier after the sketch of Philipon.
Les Poires, as sold separately to cover the expenses of a trial of Le Charivari, after a version published in Le Charivari of January 17, 1834. The drawing was made by Daumier after the sketch of Philipon.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Ambiguity of information, in words, pictures, or other media, is the ability to express more than one interpretation. It is generally contrasted with vagueness, in that specific and distinct interpretations are permitted (although some may not be immediately apparent), whereas with information that is vague it is difficult to form any interpretation at the desired level of specificity.

Context may play a role in resolving ambiguity. For example, the same piece of information may be ambiguous in one context and unambiguous in another.


Linguistic forms

The lexical ambiguity of a word or phrase pertains to its having more than one meaning in the language to which the word belongs. "Meaning" hereby refers to whatever should be captured by a good dictionary. For instance, the word "bank" has several distinct lexical definitions, including "financial institution" and "edge of a river". Another example is as in "apothecary". One could say "I bought herbs from the apothecary". This could mean one actually spoke to the apothecary (pharmacist) or went to the apothecary (pharmacy).

The context in which an ambiguous word is used often makes it evident which of the meanings is intended. If, for instance, someone says "I buried $100 in the bank", most people would not think someone used a shovel to dig in the mud. However, some linguistic contexts do not provide sufficient information to disambiguate a used word. For example, "biweekly" can mean "fortnightly" (once every two weeks – 26 times a year), or "twice a week" (104 times a year). If "biweekly" is used in a conversation about a meeting schedule, it may be difficult to infer which meaning was intended.

Lexical ambiguity can be addressed by algorithmic methods that automatically associate the appropriate meaning with a word in context, a task referred to as word sense disambiguation.

The use of multi-defined words requires the author or speaker to clarify their context, and sometimes elaborate on their specific intended meaning (in which case, a less ambiguous term should have been used). The goal of clear concise communication is that the receiver(s) have no misunderstanding about what was meant to be conveyed. An exception to this could include a politician whose "weasel words" and obfuscation are necessary to gain support from multiple constituents with mutually exclusive conflicting desires from their candidate of choice. Ambiguity is a powerful tool of political science.

More problematic are words whose senses express closely related concepts. "Good", for example, can mean "useful" or "functional" (That's a good hammer), "exemplary" (She's a good student), "pleasing" (This is good soup), "moral (a good person versus the lesson to be learned from a story), "righteous", etc. " I have a good daughter" is not clear about which sense is intended. The various ways to apply prefixes and suffixes can also create ambiguity ("unlockable" can mean "capable of being unlocked" or "impossible to lock").

Syntactic ambiguity arises when a phrase can be parsed in only one way. Such phrases can be assigned different interpretations because different grammatical structures can be assigned to the same string of words. "He ate the cookies on the couch", for example, could mean that he ate those cookies which were on the couch (as opposed to those that were on the table), or it could mean that he was sitting on the couch when he ate the cookies.

Spoken language can contain many more types of ambiguities, where there is more than one way to compose a set of sounds into words, for example "ice cream" and "I scream". Such ambiguity is generally resolved according to the context. A mishearing of such, based on incorrectly resolved ambiguity, is called a mondegreen.

Semantic ambiguity arises when a word or concept has an inherently diffuse meaning based on widespread or informal usage. This is often the case, for example, with idiomatic expressions whose definitions are rarely or never well-defined, and are presented in the context of a larger argument that invites a conclusion.

For example, "You could do with a new automobile. How about a test drive?" The clause "You could do with" presents a statement with such wide possible interpretation as to be essentially meaningless. Lexical ambiguity is contrasted with semantic ambiguity. The former represents a choice between a finite number of known and meaningful context-dependent interpretations. The latter represents a choice between any number of possible interpretations, none of which may have a standard agreed-upon meaning. This form of ambiguity is closely related to vagueness.

Linguistic ambiguity can be a problem in law (see Ambiguity (law)), because the interpretation of written documents and oral agreements is often of paramount importance.

Intentional application

Philosophers (and other users of logic) spend a lot of time and effort searching for and removing (or intentionally adding) ambiguity in arguments, because it can lead to incorrect conclusions and can be used to deliberately conceal bad arguments. For example, a politician might say "I oppose taxes which hinder economic growth", an example of a glittering generality. Some will think he opposes taxes in general, because they hinder economic growth. Others may think he opposes only those taxes that he believes will hinder economic growth. In writing, the sentence can be rewritten to reduce possible misinterpretation, either by adding a comma after "taxes" (to convey the first sense) or by changing "which" to "that" (to convey the second sense), or by rewriting it in other ways. The devious politician hopes that each constituent will interpret the statement in the most desirable way, and think the politician supports everyone's opinion. However, the opposite can also be true - An opponent can turn a positive statement into a bad one, if the speaker uses ambiguity (intentionally or not). The logical fallacies of amphiboly and equivocation rely heavily on the use of ambiguous words and phrases.

In Continental philosophy (particularly phenomenology and existentialism), there is much greater tolerance of ambiguity, as it is generally seen as an integral part of the human condition. Martin Heidegger argued that the relation between the subject and object is ambiguous, as is the relation of mind and body, and part and whole. In Heidegger's phenomenology, Dasein is always in a meaningful world, but there is always an underlying background for every instance of signification. Thus, although some things may be certain, they have little to do with Dasein's sense of care and existential anxiety, e.g., in the face of death. In calling his work Being and Nothingness an "essay in phenomenological ontology" Jean-Paul Sartre follows Heidegger in defining the human essence as ambiguous, or relating fundamentally to such ambiguity. Simone de Beauvoir tries to base an ethics on Heidegger's and Sartre's writings (The Ethics of Ambiguity), where she highlights the need to grapple with ambiguity: "as long as philosophers and they [men] have thought, most of them have tried to mask it...And the ethics which they have proposed to their disciples has always pursued thre same goal. It has been a matter of eliminating the ambiguity by making oneself pure inwardness or pure externality, by escaping from the sensible world or being engulfed by it, by yielding to eternity or enclosing oneself in the pure moment.". Ethics cannot be based on the authoritative certainty given by mathematics and logic, or prescribed directly from the empirical findings of science. She states: "Since we do not succeed in fleeing it, let us therefore try to look the truth in the face. Let us try to assume our fundamental ambiguity. It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our life that we must draw our strength to live and our reason for acting.". Other continental philosophers suggest that concepts such as life, nature, and sex are ambiguous. Recently, Corey Anton has argued that we cannot be certain what is separate from or unified with something else: language, he asserts, divides what is not in fact separate. Following Ernest Becker, he argues that the desire to 'authoritatively disambiguate' the world and existence has led to numerous ideologies and historical events such as genocide. On this basis, he argues that ethics must focus on 'dialectically integrating opposites' and balancing tension, rather than seeking a priori validation or certainty. Like the existentialists and phenomenologists, he sees the ambiguity of life as the basis of creativity.

In literature and rhetoric, ambiguity can be a useful tool. Groucho Marx's classic joke depends on a grammatical ambiguity for its humor, for example: "Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I'll never know". Songs and poetry often rely on ambiguous words for artistic effect, as in the song title "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" (where "blue" can refer to the color, or to sadness).

In narrative, ambiguity can be introduced in several ways: motive, plot, character. F. Scott Fitzgerald uses the latter type of ambiguity with notable effect in his novel The Great Gatsby.

All religions debate the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of ambiguity. Christianity and Judaism employ the concept of paradox synonymously with 'ambiguity'. Ambiguity within Christianity (and other religions) is resisted by the conservatives and fundamentalists, who regard the concept as equating with 'contradiction'. Non-fundamentalist Christians and Jews endorse Rudolf Otto's description of the sacred as 'mysterium tremendum et fascinans', the awe-inspiring mystery which fascinates humans.

Metonymy involves the use of the name of a subcomponent part as an abbreviation, or jargon, for the name of the whole object (for example "wheels" to refer to a car, or "flowers" to refer to beautiful offspring, an entire plant, or a collection of blooming plants). In modern vocabulary critical semiotics, metonymy encompasses any potentially ambiguous word substitution that is based on contextual contiguity (located close together), or a function or process that an object performs, such as "sweet ride" to refer to a nice car. Metonym miscommunication is considered a primary mechanism of linguistic humour.


In music, pieces or sections which confound expectations and may be or are interpreted simultaneously in different ways are ambiguous, such as some polytonality, polymeter, other ambiguous meters or rhythms, and ambiguous phrasing, or (Stein 2005, p. 79) any aspect of music. The music of Africa is often purposely ambiguous. To quote Sir Donald Francis Tovey (1935, p. 195), "Theorists are apt to vex themselves with vain efforts to remove uncertainty just where it has a high aesthetic value."

Visual art

In visual art, certain images are visually ambiguous, such as the Necker cube, which can be interpreted in two ways. Perceptions of such objects remain stable for a time, then may flip, a phenomenon called multistable perception. The opposite of such ambiguous images are impossible objects.

Pictures or photographs may also be ambiguous at the semantic level: the visual image is unambiguous, but the meaning and narrative may be ambiguous: is a certain facial expression one of excitement or fear, for instance?

Constructed language

Some languages have been created with the intention of avoiding ambiguity, especially lexical ambiguity. Lojban and Loglan are two related languages which have been created with this in mind, focusing chiefly on syntactic ambiguity as well. The languages can be both spoken and written. These languages are intended to provide a greater technical precision over big natural languages, although historically, such attempts at language improvement have been criticized. Languages composed from many diverse sources contain much ambiguity and inconsistency. The many exceptions to syntax and semantic rules are time-consuming and difficult to learn.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Ambiguity" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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