Examples of Ambiguity in Language and Literature

Updated February 17, 2021
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An example of ambiguity

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Have you ever been accused of being ambiguous? It means you’re being unclear or inexact. Ambiguity is a funny thing. Sometimes, people do it on purpose. Other times, they don’t know they’re doing it. Sometimes, people enjoy a little ambiguity because it feels like you’re solving a puzzle. Other times, they find it annoying and want you to just “come out with it.”

In speech and writing, however, ambiguity can be a useful tool. In your speech, you might want to use ambiguity to make your audience consider things for themselves. In a creative writing piece, you’ll be dealing with some sort of conflict, climax, and resolution. Within that story arc lies the opportunity to be a bit ambiguous while setting the stage for the conclusion.

Together, let’s explore a few examples of ambiguity. We’ll see how it’s used and how you can add it to your toolkit for your next big piece.


Ambiguity in Everyday Life

Let’s take a look at some common examples of ambiguity. Hopefully, these will get the wheels turning so you can incorporate a little bit into your everyday speech and writing. Each of these general examples of ambiguity can carry double meanings:

  • Marcy got the bath ready for her daughter wearing a pink tutu.
    Was Marcy wearing the tutu? Or was her daughter?
  • Well, I’ve certainly never tasted chicken cooked that way before!
    Was the chicken good or bad?
  • Call me a taxi, please.
    Is the speaker asking someone to hail them a taxi or to be called a taxi?
  • Stop trying to push the envelope.
    Is someone trying to push the boundaries in a current situation or literally push an envelope across a desk?
  • I saw someone on the hill with a telescope.
    Did you use a telescope to see someone on the hill or did you see someone on the hill holding a telescope?

Ambiguity in Literature

Now, let’s examine ambiguity used as a literary device in some of our favorite works. When found in literature, ambiguity is sure to be intentional, forcing the reader to contemplate a central idea.

Thou still unravished bride of quietness…

- "Ode On a Grecian Urn," John Keats

Does “still” mean “unmoving” or “not yet changed"? More than likely, we’d have to read on to see what Keats was up to.

I ran all the way to the main gate, and then I waited a second till I got my breath. I have no wind, if you want to know the truth. I’m quite a heavy smoker, for one thing—that is, I used to be. They made me cut it out. Another thing, I grew six and a half inches last year. That’s also how I practically got t.b. and came out here for all these goddam checkups and stuff. I’m pretty healthy though.

- The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

“They” and “here” are rather ambiguous words. Salinger is assuming the reader will understand “they” refers to the medical professionals in the rehab center and “here” refers to the center itself.

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.

- "The Sick Rose," William Blake

Blake leaves this poem open to a wealth of varying opinions regarding the meaning of “rose,” “sick,” “worm,” and “bed of crimson joy.” Is this poem about the flower? Or is it about the loss of a loved one? Why was "Rose" capitalized?

Her right arm lay in the cushioned parapet before her. She raised her hand, and made a light, quick movement toward the right. No one but her lover saw her. Every eye but his was fixed on the man in the arena.

He turned, and with a firm and rapid step he walked across the empty space. Every heart stopped beating, every breath was held, every eye was fixed immovable upon that man. Without the slightest hesitation, he went to the door on the right, and opened it.

- The Lady, or the Tiger?, Frank R. Stockton

Stockton ends this story with a ton of ambiguity. Behind that door, there’s either a tiger or another woman. The princess told him to choose the door to the right, and he did. But, what is her wish? That he faces a tiger or another lover?

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.

- The Awakening, Kate Chopin

This is a good example of syntactic ambiguity. The entire passage leads readers to wonder if she committed suicide or was simply swept away by the current.

Like puns and humor, ambiguity also lends itself well to poetry. Writers often use it on purpose to evoke mystery or feeling. Ambiguity can open the door to deeper, implied meanings that the reader must draw for themselves.


Forms of Ambiguity

In speech and writing, ambiguity isn’t merely the absence of clarity. It’s something a bit more focused than that. In its two forms, ambiguity presents two or more possible meanings in a single word or passage. In fact, the word ambiguity is rooted in Latin, meaning “wandering about.”

There are two elemental forms in speech and writing. They are:

  1. Lexical ambiguity
  2. Syntactic ambiguity

Lexical Ambiguity

Lexical ambiguity presents two or more possible meanings within a single word. This is also known as semantic ambiguity. We see a lot of this in puns and other forms of wordplay.

For example:

  • “Do you believe in clubs for young people?” someone asked W.C. Fields. “Only when kindness fails,” he replied (The Linguistic Analysis of Jokes, 2004).

Lexical ambiguity lies in the fact that the speaker was referring to nightclubs, while Fields - kiddingly - took it to mean something along the lines of a wooden bat.


Syntactic Ambiguity

Syntactic ambiguity presents two or more possible meanings within a sentence or phrase. This is also known as structural ambiguity. When dealing with syntactic ambiguity, it’s helpful to use your context clues to uncover the true meaning of the sentence or phrase.

For example:

Did Groucho shoot an elephant while wearing pajamas? Or did he shoot an elephant that somehow got into his pajamas? As you can see, ambiguity lends itself particularly well to comedy. It makes the listener or readers stop and say, “Wait. What?” Hopefully, that momentary confusion will end in a chuckle or two.


Ambiguity also borders on another rhetorical device: fallacy. A fallacy is a perceived error in reasoning. In writing, perhaps a main character will be working out an error in their — or someone else’s — judgment. In speech, a fallacy could form the foundation for a great debate. These two terms are also akin to equivocation, meaning the same term is used in more than one way.


Writing Is a Craft

Writing is, indeed, a craft. It comes with a toolkit full of rhetorical devices, including ambiguity and fallacies. Beyond this, we can also explore alliteration, analogies, epithets, metaphors, personification, and more.

If you’re ready to add them all to your arsenal, study these Examples of Rhetorical Devices. Why not choose to focus on one of these devices and see if you can incorporate it into your next piece? It will send your readers down a colorful path of intrigue and interest.