Definition and Examples of Ambiguity in Rhetoric

Ambiguity is the propensity of a language Opens in new window capable of being interpreted in more than one way or the capacity to exhibits double meanings.

By the definition of the literary scholar, William EmpsonOpens in new window,

Ambiguity is ‘any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.’

Ambiguity is sub-categorized into two:

  1. the lexical ambiguity  Opens in new window — the capacity of a word having more than one meaning;
  2. the syntactic ambiguity  Opens in new window — the capacity of a sentence having more than one interpretation because of the syntax  Opens in new window or structure of the sentence.

The use of multi-defined words requires the author or speaker to clarify their context, and sometimes elaborate on their specific intended meaning (in which case, a less ambiguous term should have been used).

The goal of clear concise communication is that the receiver have no misunderstanding about what was meant to be conveyed. An exception to this could include a politician whose “weasel words” and obfuscationOpens in new window are necessary to gain support from multiple constituents with mutually exclusive conflicting desires from their candidate of choice. Ambiguity is a powerful tool of political science. — (Articles Courtesy of wikipediaOpens in new window)

More problematic are words whose senses express closely related concepts. “Good”, for example, can mean “useful” or “functional” (That's a good hammer), “exemplary” (She's a good student), “pleasing” (This is good soup), “moral” (a good person versus the lesson to be learned from a story), “righteous”, etc. “I have a good daughter” is not clear about which sense is intended. The various ways to apply prefixes and suffixes can also create ambiguity (“unlockable” can mean “capable of being unlocked” or “impossible to lock”). — (Articles Courtesy of wikipediaOpens in new window)

Distinction from Vagueness

Ambiguity is often confused with VaguenessOpens in new window to denote a general lack of clarity but these are different terms that fits distinctly into two separate contexts.

In Ambiguity, a word or phrase is said to be ambiguous when it has more than one meaning and the context in which it is applied does not perspicuously denote which of those multiple meanings is intended.

Vagueness, on the orther hand, is when a particular word or phrase has an unsettled range of application; thereby making it very difficult to establish any cogent interpretation.

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