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Ambiguity occurs when the structure and/or content of a statement makes its meaning unclear, leaving it open to multiple possible interpretations. Ambiguity could occur either because a person is a poor communicator and does not actually know how to speak or write in a direct way; or, ambiguity could be done on purpose as a means of having a specific aesthetic and semiotic effect on the listener.

Understanding the term

Ambiguity is a word, phrase, or statement without a single clear meaning; it is a word or expression which can be interpreted or understood in two or more possible ways. Ambiguous words and phrases are discouraged in non-fiction writing, as they often lead to confusion or vagueness about meaning, and possibly even humorous instances due to misinterpretation by readerships and listeners. Context is the solution to ambiguity, because with it the true meaning of an ambiguous word, phrase, or statement can be determined. The first known use of ambiguity was in the 15th century B.C.E. Synonyms of ambiguity are obscurity, inscrutability, mysteriousness, and opacity.

Ambiguity in literature

Ambiguous phrases in writing are often incorrect and should be eradicated to produce better and more specific writing. The exception to this rule is ambiguity used for a humorous or comedic effect in literature, fiction, or non-fiction. An example of ambiguity in a sentence is “I rode my dapple grey horse around the house.” Although it is assumed that the subject of the sentence is not riding his or her horse inside the house, the lack of context and the two different meanings of “around the house” make the sentence unclear to the reader. The horse might have been rode inside the house, or actually around the house itself on the outside.

A single word can have many different meanings, as well, but retain the same spelling, which may cause confusion. Ambiguity is a particular problem when it comes to learning a second language, as context is often an important determinant of word and phrase meaning. For instance, the word “bank” can mean the bank of a river, or the building or institution which stores and manages a person’s money and assets. A person might disrobe on the bank of a river in order to swim, but disrobing at atop of Bank of America might have legal implications. Ambiguous sentences can be found everywhere, from advertising and political campaign literature to media and website content and articles. It is the job of an editor or essay writer to make sure that writing, speeches, and communication is free from ambiguity.

Examples of ambiguity

Ambiguity is rampant in titles and headlines, as writers often assume readers possess the same context on an issue as they do. For example, the following headline demonstrates ambiguity: “Man helps bear bite boy.” Although a man would be unlikely to help a bear bite a boy, the ambiguity and lack of context in the sentence leads to the humorous effect. The reader might envision a man helping an injured boy bitten by a bear, or envision a man helping a bear to bite a little boy.

Pronouns such as “he,” “they,” and “we” can be ambiguous without context, because they do not name a specific person or people. Also, words such as “here” and “there” can be ambiguous, as they do not name specific places. For example, "She went to buy custom essay samples there." This example, does not specify who bought the essay samples, or where they bought the essay samples. Ambiguity can be used to convey a sense or idea that is taboo in the literature or art of a certain culture or people, and may shelter an artist or writer from criticism, as well. Ambiguity is also a character trait, implying that a person’s actions, beliefs, or statements are unclear. For instance, a villain in a story may be ambiguous toward the beginning, but gain clarity and evilness through the progress of the tale.

Ambiguity can be used on purpose in writing in order to disguise a character’s true intentions, or to mislead the reader for the purpose of mystery. Ambiguity can also be used as a literary device meant to drive readers, listeners, or observers toward a deeper, more personal meaning than might be conveyed by the words or images used in a piece of prose, a poem, or a work of art.

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