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Ambiguity: That’s Not What I Meant

Have You Ever?

Have you ever seen a person in a building with a dinosaur? Chances are, you’re baffled that I’d even ask that. After all, dinosaurs went extinct long before humans entered the scene. What would one be doing hanging around with someone in a building, right? Not so fast. The question I asked you is ambiguous. If you read it as saying, “Have you ever seen a person, accompanied by a dinosaur, in a building?” you’d be right to answer “Obviously, not—those two don’t travel together.” But you could also read it as saying, “Have you ever seen a person in a building that has a dinosaur in it?” If you’ve been in a natural history museum, your answer might be “Yes—I’ve seen a person in a building that houses a dinosaur skeleton.” This confusion about how to interpret the sentence is a product of the ambiguity of the sentence. In this lesson, you’ll learn about what ambiguity is, why it matters, and how to avoid it so you can convey your ideas more clearly. 

Definition/ Ambiguity 

An expression is ambiguous if the proper way to interpret its wording is unclear and it is able to be read (or heard) in at least two different ways. Here are three ways an expression can be ambiguous: 

  1. Ambiguous vocabulary: Key words in the sentence may be read to mean different things.  

Example: “Parking spots are available to every resident” may mean (i) “There is a parking spot available for each resident or (ii)) “All residents are eligible for a parking spot.” 

Solution: Here, the word “every” is ambiguous. It can mean “each” (i) or “all” (ii). Using more precise vocabulary helps avoid this problem.

  1. Ambiguous word order: Words are arranged in ways that produce different meanings. 

“There is a woman in the store with a car” may mean (i) “There is a woman who has a car and is in the store,” (ii) “There is a woman in the store that has a car in it,” or (iii) “There is a woman in the store who is accompanied by a car.”  

Solution: Here, it is unclear whether the modifier “with a car” is describing the woman (i) or the store (ii). Paying close attention to the structure of a sentence helps avoid this problem. If you were paying attention to example (1), you may also have caught the ambiguity produced by the word “with.” Here, “with” may mean “has” (i), or it may mean “is accompanied by” (iii). This problem can be avoided by using more precise vocabulary. 

  1. Ambiguous description: The description does not provide all the information needed to pick out the relevant meaning of a term or phrase.

“Kanye West loves Chicago” may mean (i) “Kanye West loves his daughter, Chicago” or (ii) “Kanye West loves his hometown, Chicago.” 

Solution: Here, it is unclear which “Chicago” is being referenced. It may be Kanye’s daughter (i) or Kanye’s hometown (ii). Including more information or introducing the context of the term (in this case, “Chicago”) helps avoid this problem. 

Why Care? 

Of course, most of the times we write or voice an ambiguous thought, we don’t mean to be ambiguous. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to watch out for and avoid ambiguity. Here are two of these reasons: 

  1. Clarity helps persuade. The truth is, most people don’t like to spend a long time wondering what is meant by an ambiguous term or phrase. After a while of investigating, they may lose interest or assume a meaning, neither of which helps you persuade them of an argument or claim you want to make. They may stop engaging, take you to be presenting a different claim or argument, or question your credibility. You may come off as wishy-washy, straddling two meanings because even you don’t know which one you’re committed to. Clear writing (or speech) reflects a clear understanding of one’s point, and readers (or listeners) pick up on this. The more you seem to know exactly what you’re talking about, the more confidence others will have in your point.  
  2. Clarity helps avoid unintended and/or problematic meanings. Misunderstandings can have consequences beyond obscuring your message. They can be unintentionally divisive and problematic. Consider the following claim: The poor appeal to capitalist structures. This may mean (i) “Capitalist structures are appealed to by the poor” or (ii) “Capitalist structures have an interest in the poor.” “Appeal to” has an ambiguous meaning, and, as a result, these two interpretations say two very different (and unequally controversial) things. In fact, (i) can be interpreted in two further ways: “The poor cite capitalist structures (to explain something, such as oppression)” or “The poor call on capitalist structures (for example, for a solution).” Different readers and listeners, who bring their own biases to their interpretations, may take different meanings from the same sentence. This can make it seem like the sentence is making a stronger or more controversial claim than the writer (or speaker) intended. 

An Example from the Law

Avoiding ambiguity is crucial for making sure both you and your audience are on the same page about what you are saying. One domain where ambiguity has serious consequences is the law. Consider the legal case Raffles v. Wichelhaus. In 1864, a buyer purchased cotton to be transported from India to England. The buyer and seller agreed that the cotton would be sent on a ship called “Peerless,” but neither knew at the time that there were two different ships called Peerless, one set to leave India in October and the other in December. The buyer expected the cotton to arrive on the October Peerless, but the seller sent it on the December ship. Neither was aware of the other’s intent. The buyer did not accept the shipment when it arrived in England on the December Peerless, so the seller sued the buyer. 

The counsel for the buyer, the defendant, noted the ambiguity about which “Peerless” was being referred to in the contract. The verdict in this case was that the lack of consensus on the exact terms and conditions of the contract voided the contract. Because it was not binding, the buyer did not have to accept the cotton and the seller had to eat his losses. This example highlights the importance of avoiding the three types of ambiguity we discussed. (If you hadn’t guessed already, this case falls under type 3). 

Why Care?  

As the legal example demonstrates, ambiguity can create misunderstandings that have serious consequences. Avoiding types 1 and 2 helps you construct clear and persuasive arguments, but type 3 is at the heart of familiar disagreements about moral, social, and political issues. Ambiguous descriptions can lead people to talk past each other, each thinking the other is wrong without realizing they are not even arguing about the same thing. Consider arguments about abortion. People who consider themselves pro-life vary widely in what they mean by “life.” Some think life starts at conception, others at a heartbeat, and others at a certain stage in development (e.g., third trimester). People who consider themselves pro-choice also vary in what they mean by “choice.” Some think a woman has an unconditional right to choose abortion, whereas other think she has a choice up to a certain point (e.g., until the third trimester). If you’re trying to convince people in either camp to change their views, you should double check that you are disagreeing about the same thing. That is, you should spell out exactly what you mean when you say “life” or “choice.” Clarity and precision make for more fruitful conversations with those who have different views than us.

Think Further

  1. Think about an issue you’re passionate about (e.g., the environment, human rights, poverty, etc.). What are three different ways the term for that issue could be interpreted? How might the variation in meanings lead to disagreement about the best solutions? 
  2. Reference a recent news article and identify an ambiguous word or sentence. Consider how the ambiguity influences your understanding of the piece. Rewrite it to more clearly reflect the message of the article.
  3. What is a word you use often? For me, it’s “interesting.” I call a lot of things “interesting.” Now, think of three more precise words you can use to replace that word in different contexts (for “interesting,” these might be “thought-provoking,” “novel,” and “unexpected”). Try to integrate them into your everyday speech. 

Teacher Resources

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Learn More

  1. David Marsh and Amelia Hodsdon, Guardian Style (Guardian Books, 2010). 
  2. James R. Hurford, Brendan Heasley, and Michael B. Smith, Semantics: A Coursebook, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2007). 
  3. Sanford Schane, “Ambiguity and Misunderstanding in the Law,” in Thomas Jefferson Law Review 26, no. 1 (2002). Link: 
  4. William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (New Directions, 1947).