Ambiguity in English


Ambiguity is the quality of ambiguous, that is, it is a term that expresses the quality of what is susceptible to various interpretations, all of them consistent, which gives rise to doubt, inaccuracy, confusion or ambivalence.

For example: “The artist managed to capture the essence of the royal family in photography.” The phrase can be interpreted as a portrait of a family of royalty or can be interpreted as a realistic portrait of a common family.

Unlike the moments in which the context only admits one interpretation, whether literal or figurative, ambiguity occurs when all interpretations make sense.

It is a condition to perceive the ambiguity that the recipient of the message does not know the referent at all or has several referents from which to decide.

Ambiguity may also refer to a behavior or attitude that creates inaccuracy, doubt or distrust. For example: “José constantly repeats that he misses his wife, but he showed no signs of joy knowing that he would return this week.” In that sense, it can be concluded that: “Joseph’s attitude reflects ambiguity.”

Some synonyms and / or related terms are ambivalence, confusion, indeterminacy and inaccuracy.

Linguistic ambiguity

When ambiguity occurs in speech acts, grammatically it is called linguistic ambiguity. This type of ambiguity occurs when an expression, sentence or phrase can be interpreted in more ways than one.

Thus, at least two major types of linguistic ambiguity are recognized. Namely:

  • Structural ambiguity: produced by the order or structure of the discourse. For example: “Men’s leather wallets are sold.”
  • Lexical ambiguity: produced when words that have more than one meaning are used and both are admissible. For example: “They met at the bank of the avenue.” In the example, it is not clear whether it is a bank to sit on or a financial institution, since both things make sense.

Ambiguity and amphibology

There is talk of amphibology when, due to an unconscious vice in the use of language, ambiguity of meaning is favored, which is one of the characteristics of amphibology.

For example: “Juan met Pedro in his house.” In whose house? From Pedro or Juan? If it is Juan’s house, the grammatical solution would be in the following options: “Juan received Pedro in his house” or “Pedro visited Juan in his house”.

Amphibology can also function as a rhetorical figure if the individual deliberately seeks double meaning. In fact, amphibology is a frequent humorous resource. For example:

-What’s your wife name?

-Lucía Fernanda. But I love her, Lucifer.

Visual ambiguity

Like language, an image can be ambiguous, which is related to perception. We talk about images that create more than one reading in the brain.

As in the language, the possibilities of interpretation will depend on the receiver knowing the specific referent or having several possible referents among which to decide. Hence, the process of perception is linked to the unconscious.

Normally, visual ambiguity occurs deliberately. This is the case of the images used in psychology (Gestalt). It is also the case, for example, of kinetic art (optical art), which decontextualizes geometry and eliminates reference points to create visual ambiguity, which results in an optical illusion.

However, it may happen that in the process of preparing a certain image (for example, when taking a photograph), a neglect of the composition of the plane creates an ambiguity.