You may have heard of the concept of ambiguity, but you may not yet understand what it is. This is something which you will likely come across in both spoken and written English. In this article, we are going to take a deeper look at the meaning of ambiguity and how it can be used in both day to day conversation as well as in literature. We are going to view some examples of ambiguity being used so that we can further understand how it works in a sentence.
What Is Ambiguity?
Ambiguity is a statement or sentence which could have more than one possible interpretation, it is up to the listener or reader to determine what the true interpretation could be. There are some statements which may be ambiguous when said alone but with additional information, the ambiguity could be removed. An example of this would be the sentence ‘You read the book.‘ When said alone, the statement could be referring to an event which happened in the past or is happening in the present, by changing it to ‘You read the book when you were younger’, the ambiguity is no longer present.
When used as a literary device, ambiguity can give the reader the opportunity to think more deeply about the text that they are reading. A writer will often use ambiguity to give additional layers to their work as well as giving the reader some freedom by allowing them to make their own interpretation of what is happening.
Examples of Ambiguity in Conversation
You will likely come across the use of ambiguity in many day to day conversations and it is not always intentional. Many people will make an ambiguous statement without even realised that they are doing so. Whilst other times, the speaker may make the statement on purpose in order to get the listener to think and engage on a deeper level with the conversation. Let’s take a look at some examples of ambiguity in a way which it might be heard in speech.
- He should bring beer or wine and pudding – This sentence could be taken in a few ways. Should he bring one of the drinks and pudding, just beer or wine and a pudding?
- John isn’t coming to the movies so tell Mark that we will see him on Sunday. – This statement uses ambiguity because the word ‘him’ may be referring to either John or Mark.
- Call me a taxi – This statement might be asking the listener to literally say that the speaker is a taxi or could be used to tell someone to summon a taxi.
- They all saw her duck. – Could this sentence mean that they all saw the girls duck, or could it mean that they all saw the girl duck down?
- The stranger assisted the dog bite victim. – This sentence could mean that the stranger helped the victim of a dog bite or it could mean that the stranger helped the dog to bite its victim.
- He saw a person on a hill with a telescope. – Did the speaker see the person through a telescope or did they see a person who had a telescope?
- He gave a bike to his daughter wearing a pink dress. – In this example, we do not know if the daughter is wearing a pink dress or whether it is the man who is wearing the pink dress.
- I have never eaten food like that before! – This statement could be saying that the food was excellent or it could be saying that it was terrible, it is up to the listener to decide!
Examples of Ambiguity in Literature
As we mentioned previously, ambiguity is often used by writers in order to get the reader to draw their own conclusion on what the sentence means. There are many examples of how ambiguity has been used in various written works. We will now take a look at some of these examples.
- In Catcher in the rye written by J D Salinger, we see a good example of ambiguity in the following passage “I am rather a heavy smoker and that’s the first thing. But they made me quit.” The use of the word they could refer to a multitude of people.
- In William Blake’s poem, The sick rose, he uses ambiguity to allow the reader to make up their own minds about what he is referring. “Has found your bed of crimson joy. And the dark secret love, your life destroys.”
- An excellent example of ambiguity was used in William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, however, in this instance, it was more a tone of ambiguity in the character of Hamlet rather than anything that was said. For example, Hamlet killed in order to avenge the death of his father. The character is good because he wishes to protect his mother but he is bad as he will commit murder in order to do this.
- In the poem, Ode to a Grecian urn written by John Keats, we see a fine example of ambiguity in the sentence “though still unravished bridge of the quiet.” The word still in this example might mean continuing to be or it might refer to something that is unmoving.
- In The lady or the tiger written by Frank R Stockton, there is a very famous example of ambiguity in which the story ends with the man entering a door through which we do not know what is behind, it could be a tiger or it could be a beautiful woman. The writer uses this ambiguous situation to allow the reader to make their own interpretation of what has happened.
Ambiguity is something that you are likely to come across in both spoken language as well as in a written context. Often times, when used in speech, the speaker may not be aware that they are using ambiguous language, whereas in literature, it is something which is purposefully placed within a text.
Ambiguity is a statement which does not have a clear, single meaning and could be interpreted in more than one way. It is often down to the listener to derive the true meaning of the sentence and come up with their own interpretation.