Ambiguity refers to the presence of multiple possible meanings or interpretations within a statement, word, or any other form of communication.
This uncertainty can arise from the vagueness of language, lack of context, or the use of words and phrases that have more than one meaning.
This concept is usually seen negatively. It can lead to misunderstandings, cause confusion and frustration, and hinder effective communication.
However, don’t rule it out entirely. Ambiguity can also be used as a rhetorical device to engage audiences and provoke thought. For example, consider the plot of a whodunnit mystery novel, where ambiguity about who the culprit was keeps readers engaged and builds suspense.
1. Unspecific Weather Reports
A weather report stating there is a “chance of rain” is inherently ambiguous, as it does not specify the probability, timing, or location of the potential rainfall, leaving individuals uncertain about whether to carry an umbrella or make outdoor plans. This everyday ambiguity can lead to varied interpretations and responses, as different people might assess the risk of rain differently based on the lack of precise information.
2. Frustrating Job Interview Feedback
After a job interview, if the interviewer mentions that they will be “in touch soon,” it creates an ambiguous situation. The candidate might be left wondering whether “soon” means a positive outcome is likely, or if it is a polite way of concluding the interview without giving away any indication of success or failure.
3. Inconclusive Medical Test Results
A patient receiving a medical test result stating that findings are “inconclusive” faces an ambiguous situation. The patient is left uncertain about their health condition, not knowing whether the inconclusive result means there is no issue, further testing is needed, or if the test failed to detect an existing problem.
4. Unclear Social Media Responses
Receiving a vague or non-committal response to a message or a post on social media, such as a “maybe” to an event invitation or a simple “like” to a personal update, creates an ambiguous situation. The sender is left to interpret whether the respondent is genuinely interested, indifferent, or just acknowledging the message without revealing their true feelings or intentions.
5. A Muddled Gift Reaction
When someone opens a gift and responds with a simple “Oh, you shouldn’t have,” it creates an ambiguous situation. The giver might be left wondering whether the recipient genuinely likes the gift and feels overwhelmed, or if they are being polite despite not liking the present. This is often intentional ambiguity because the gift receiver doesn’t want to offend, but also doesn’t want to lie.
6. Parental Permission
A child asking a parent if they can go out and receiving the response “We’ll see” encounters an ambiguous situation. The child is left uncertain whether the parent is considering the request and leaning towards approval, or if it is a gentle way of deferring a refusal. Likely, it’s a parent’s soft way of saying “no” without getting into an argument, where they know if they gave a hard no, an argument would ensue. This ambiguity might be a strategy to “kick the can down the road” and deal with the argument later on.
7. “Business Casual” Dress Code Expectations
Receiving an invitation to an event that specifies the dress code as “business casual”, “casual chic”, etc., creates an ambiguous situation for attendees. They might be unsure about what exactly constitutes “casual chic” and struggle to decide on an appropriate outfit that is neither too formal nor too casual. Similarly, the oxymoron of “business casual” makes you wonder: so do I dress in a business suit or casual outfit?
8. Traffic Light Malfunction
A driver approaching an intersection and encountering a traffic light that is flashing yellow experiences an ambiguous situation. The driver must decide whether it is safe to proceed, as the flashing yellow light indicates caution, but does not clearly specify whether to stop or go, especially when the intentions of other drivers at the intersection are unclear.
Ambiguous Language Examples
1. “Go do the thing we talked about yesterday”
Cause: Vague identifier
Generally, when we refer to something, we want to refer to it in a way that our language ensures we are exclusively speaking of that one thing. But when we use reference like “that we talked about yesterday”, the listener is forced to reflect on all of the conversations they had with the speaker the day before, and try to infer which of the things was discussed. Here, there are likely multiple possible things to choose from. Clearer and more specific communication would help alleviate this situation. We should never expect people are in our brains knowing exactly what we’re thinking all the time!
2. “I read that book”
Cause: Multiple meanings of the word ‘read’
The statement “I read that book” is ambiguous as it can imply either that the speaker has read the book in the past or that they habitually read that book, depending on the context and intonation. This ambiguity arises from the dual interpretation of the simple past tense in English, which can denote both a completed action and a habitual action, leading to potential misunderstandings about the speaker’s reading habits.
3. “Bank of the river”
Cause: Multiple meanings of the word ‘bank’
The word “bank” is ambiguous as it can refer to the financial institution where people deposit money or the sides of a river, depending on the context. This lexical ambiguity can lead to confusion if the context does not clearly indicate whether the reference is to a geographical feature or a financial establishment.
4. “I saw the man with the telescope”
Cause: Unclear modifier
This sentence exhibits syntactic ambiguity, as it can be interpreted in two ways – either the speaker saw a man who had a telescope, or the speaker used a telescope to see the man. The ambiguity stems from the phrase “with the telescope,” which can modify either the verb “saw” or the noun “man,” leading to different interpretations.
5. “I visited my friend wearing a red hat”
Cause: Ambiguous Modifier
The phrase, “I visited my friend wearing a red hat,” can be interpreted in two ways: either the speaker wore the red hat during their visit, or their friend was the one wearing the red hat. This ambiguity arises from the modifier “wearing a red hat,” which can describe either the speaker or their friend, depending on one’s interpretation.
6. “I can’t recommend this book too highly”
Cause: Irony vs sincerity
The phrase “I can’t recommend this book too highly” is ambiguous. It might signify that the speaker does not wish to overpraise the book, implying they found it unimpressive. However, it could also mean that the speaker is unable to commend the book highly enough, indicating their high regard for it. This type of ambiguity is often context-dependent and can sometimes lead to misunderstandings.
7. “She gave her fur coat to her daughter when she died”
Cause: Unclear who died
This sentence exhibits ambiguity as it’s unclear to whom the pronoun “she” refers. It could mean that the daughter received the coat after her mother’s death, or it could mean that the mother chose to give the coat to her daughter after the daughter’s death. This potential for disparate interpretations arises from the unclear referent of “she.”
8. “John and Alice looked at the restaurant with a menu”
Cause: Unclear modifier
This sentence displays ambiguity since it can mean either that John and Alice looked at the restaurant’s menu, or that they looked at a restaurant while holding a menu. The phrase “with a menu” modifies the verb “looked” or the noun “restaurant,” creating two different meanings.
9. “I saw a bat in the cave”
Cause: Multiple meanings of the word ‘bat’
The phrase “I saw a bat in the cave” is ambiguous because a ‘bat’ can refer to the nocturnal flying mammal or a piece of sports equipment used in games like baseball. If the context doesn’t clarify, one might be led to wonder if the speaker saw an animal or an object in the cave.
10. “Each of the students has to read their book”
Cause: Unclear referent
This sentence exhibits ambiguity because the phrase “their book” isn’t clear. It could refer to a specific book assigned to each student or the concept that each student owns and should read a book, irrespective of which book it is. This ambiguity arises from the unclear referent of “their book.”
While ambiguity is generally seen as a negative thing, especially when it was unintentional in communication, it can also be a useful tool. Mostly, this is when you want to create suspense (such as in a novel or movie storyline) or when you want to hide your true intentions (politicians are especially good at this!).
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]