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An ambiguity is a word, statement, or phrase that leaves room for more than one interpretation.
Ambiguity in writing, though sometimes intentional, can be the cause of much confusion (and sometimes a few laughs).
If being ambiguous isn’t your intention, then it’s important that you learn to recognize it in your writing so you can correct it and be as clear as possible.
The Meaning of Ambiguity
There are 2 types of ambiguity in written and spoken rhetoric: lexical and syntactic. Lexical ambiguity presents two or more potential meanings within a single word, while syntactic ambiguity presents two or more possibilities within a phrase.
When used in nonfiction, ambiguities are usually considered errors, since they can lead to confusion. In creative writing and fiction, however, ambiguous language is often utilized as a tool to convey double meanings and make readers think metaphorically.
Thus, whether or not you should try to avoid ambiguity comes down to your intentions and the context in which you are writing.
Examples of Ambiguity
Below are several examples of ambiguous statements that could cause confusion in nonfiction writing.
- I walked my dog in sweatpants this morning.
This statement can be interpreted in two ways: that I was wearing sweatpants when I walked my dog this morning, or that my dog was wearing the pants.
While you can probably infer that it was me wearing the pants, the language is unnecessarily ambiguous and warrants clarification.
- The lamb is ready to eat.
Are we ready to eat, or is the lamb?
- Professor Simon said on Friday he would give give an exam.
Did the professor let us know on Friday that an exam would be coming up, or did he tell us the exam would be on Friday?
- The young men and women sat together in the park.
Who is young? The men and the women, or just the men?
Ambiguity in Literature
Below are several examples of ambiguity from literature. Note how they leave room for different interpretations of the main message.
“The Sick Rose” by William Blake
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy
As is common in poetry, this short poem is very ambiguous. Who is Rose? Why is she sick? What is the invisible worm?
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Exhaustion was pressing upon and overpowering her.
“Good-by—because I love you.” He did not know; he did not understand. He would never understand. Perhaps Doctor Mandelet would have understood if she had seen him—but it was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone.
In this ambiguous conclusion to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, it is not made explicitly clear whether the main character dies of suicide by intentionally jumping out into the waves, or whether she was unintentionally swept out.
How to Avoid Ambiguity in Nonfiction Writing
If you’re not trying to purposefully employ ambiguity (as in the famous fictional examples above), then you should take care to make your writing as precise as possible.
Pay Attention to Prepositions
Let’s look at the first example in this post (“I walked my dog in sweatpants this morning”). Does the preposition “in” modify me or my dog?
When you have lots of sentences with prepositions, double check that you’ve made everything as clear as possible. This might require you to restructure some sentences.
Use Oxford Commas
Oxford commas (the comma before the final item in a list) can help to alleviate many issues of ambiguity.
Example: I love my dogs, Elvis and Madonna.
This sentence could be interpreted in two ways: that you love 3 things (your dogs, Elvis, and Madonna), or that you love your two dogs, who are named Elvis and Madonna.
If your intention was to express the former, then you should definitely use an Oxford comma to eliminate that ambiguity.
Get a Fresh Set of Eyes
Even if you think you’ve made yourself crystal clear, it never hurts to have a second set of eyes comb through your writing.
If you ask a friend or colleague to read your work, they might bring up some areas of ambiguity that you missed. This way, you’ll have an opportunity to make your writing as precise as possible before it gets printed or seen by anyone else.
Ambiguity in Writing
Ambiguity can enhance your creative writing, but it can also make nonfiction writing less clear.
Learn to recognize ambiguity so you can avoid being unnecessarily vague in your prose and leave a more powerful impact on your readers.
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