Ambiguity – Concept, causes, types and examples

We explain what ambiguity is, for what reasons it can occur in language and in which cases it can be a desirable trait or not.

ambiguous ambiguity
Ambiguity prevents a single message from being conveyed clearly.

What is ambiguity?

When talking about ambiguity or saying that something is ambiguous, it means that its correct meaning, original intention or purpose are not clear, being able to correspond to one or more possibilities at the same time. With this we can refer to an endless number of references, be it the meaning of a writing, the intention behind a comment, the behavior of a person or any other form of information.

The words ambiguity and ambiguous come from Latin ambiguus, made up of the prefix amb- (“On both sides”) and the verb agere (“Carry out”, “act”). Thus, from their origins, these words refer to that which has two possible meanings, that is, it figuratively acts on two fronts or advances in two possible directions.

Hence the ambiguity is an undesirable trait in communicating effectively, since it allows the misinterpretation of the message by the receiver, who could confuse it with another possible message. An ambiguous instruction, for example, will be difficult to carry out, since the recipient must either request clarification or run the risk of executing it without really knowing what is expected of him.

At the linguistic level, ambiguity can occur for various reasons, such as:

Syntactic ambiguity, when the order of the words is unclear about what it refers to. For example, the sentence “the turkey is ready to eat” may mean that the turkey is cooked and ready to be eaten, or that there is a live turkey that is ready to be fed. This ambiguity can be eliminated by the context in which the sentence is stated.

Semantic ambiguity, when the specific meaning of a word is not too clear and can be confusing. This can occur in two different cases:

  • Homonymy, when two words are the same but represent different things. For example: in the sentence “Miguel is waiting for us in a bank” they may be waiting for us in a bank in a square, or in a bank.
  • Homophony, when two words sound the same but are spelled differently, and can lead to confusion in spoken language. For example: when we hear the sentence “On the other side there are many fences” we could confuse it with “On the other side there are many berries”, and not know if we refer to advertisements or fruit trees.

In other forms of communication, however, ambiguity may be a desired trait, since allows you to hint, show or suggest something, without stating it outright, leaving to the capacity of the receiver the understanding of the “true” message delivered.

This occurs in situations such as seduction, in which it seeks to build a language of complicity between future lovers, or also in literary language, whose ambiguity can be at the same time an enormous wealth of meanings, as in the case of the poetry.