Ambiguity

Ambiguity means that a word can be read in either of two ways and the context does not make clear which way is intended. (The term ambiguity is sometimes also applied when three or more interpretations are possible.)

Ambiguity often is the result of a word's having two different senses:

It was a funny affair. ("Laughable" or "strange"?) He's mad. ("Crazy" or "angry"?)

Large abstractions are often ambiguous, particularly if they involve value judgments. Words like democracy, romantic, and Christian encompass a wide range of meanings, some of them contradictory. A writer, or a reader, can easily make mistakes with such words, sliding unconsciously from one sense to another, an error which logicians call equivocation.

Pronouns may be ambiguous if it is not clear which of two possible antecedents they refer to:

Children often anger parents; they won't talk to them.

We sat near the heater, as it was cold. (The "heater" or the un-"room"?)

Some connectives are prone to ambiguity. Or, for instance, can signify (1) a logical disjunction, that is, A or B but not both; and (2) an alternative name or word for the same thing: "The shag, or cormorant, is a common sea bird along the New England coast." Because after a negative statement may also be ambiguous:

We didn't go because we were tired. ("We did not go and the reason was that we were tired"; or, emphatically, "We did go and we certainly were not tired"?)

On other occasions ambiguity lurks, not in a single word, but in an entire statement:

I liked this story as much as I liked all his others. ("I like all his stories, including this one"; or "I don't like any of his stories, including this one"?)

So be it, until Victory is ours, and there is no enemy, but Peace. ("... there is no enemy, and now we have Peace"; or "... there is no enemy except Peace"?)

Clever writers exploit ambiguity as a kind of irony, seeming to say one thing while meaning another. Joan Didion, in the following description of a wedding, wryly comments on marriage by using "illusion" both in its technical, dressmaking sense of a bridal veil and in its more commonplace meaning of a false hope or dream:

A coronet of seed pearls held her illusion veil.

And the nineteenth-century statesman and novelist Benjamin Disraeli had a standard response to all would-be authors who sent him unsolicited manuscripts:

Many thanks; I shall lose no time in reading it.

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Project Management Made Easy

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