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Table of Contents
Ambiguity (pronounced “am-bə-gyü-ə-tē”) is a word, phrase, sentence or even storyline that expresses an idea or situation that has more than one meaning. Also known as fallacy of ambiguity, this literary device occurs when the content or structure of a statement makes its meaning inconclusive since it is open to multiple possible interpretations. It should not be confused with vagueness — an idea is vague if it lacks precision, clarity or detail, but it is ambiguous if it is open to various interpretations.
Ambiguity comes in many types, but the most common ones are as follows:
- Semantic (polysemy) — ambiguous words, e.g. play, break, bat, etc.
- Syntactic (amphiboly or amphibology) — ambiguous sentence structure, e.g. “The murderer killed the student with a book.”
- Narrative — ambiguous character or plot of the story
Risks and Functions
Oftentimes, ambiguity is present because an individual has poor communication or writing skills. Non-fiction compositions with ambiguous components, for instance, are often seen as substandard since effective writing requires clarity as one of its foundations. However, it is important to note that ambiguity can also be a power tool in adding flavor to one’s literary works. In poetry and storytelling, for example, ambiguity can be used to add a punch of suspense or mystery to the story and make the readers think.
Although prone to misinterpretation, ambiguity is also used by celebrities to inject humor. One popular example is The Tonight Show with Jay Leno’s “Headlines” segment, wherein newspaper headlines with funny errors and ambiguous meanings are featured to make the audience stop, ponder and laugh. Here are some examples and their double meanings:
- Ribbon Cutting for Breastfeeding Room
- The room does breastfeeding.
- The room is designed for breastfeeding moms.
- Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
- Kids, when cooked well, can make nutritious snacks.
- Kinds know how to prepare nutritious snacks.
- Farmer Who Shot 23-lb Grasshopper Found Dead
- The grasshopper was found dead.
- The farmer was found dead.
Ambiguity is also present in daily conversations and real-life situations, which oftentimes can lead to not just confusion but also eventually, frustration. In a workplace, for instance, interpreting incomplete directions or task delegation can be challenging. Sudden, big changes in a volatile work environment can also catch someone off guard and resort to impulsive decisions. Overall, the most obvious risk of using ambiguity (deliberately or unintentionally) misinterpretation and its consequences, i.e. frustration, annoyance and whatnot.
Ambiguity in Literature
As mentioned above, ambiguity can be used as a technique to add color, flavor, complexity and meaning to a literary work or art or movie. It can engage the readers, viewers or listeners, and encourage them to think and use their imagination to explore meanings and find answers to ambiguous scenarios. When applied appropriately and creatively, ambiguity can turn a straightforward, no-brainer tale into an interesting, thought-provoking masterpiece — one that promotes active participation from the audience, allowing them to discuss ideas afterward.
Some of the most famous literary works employing ambiguity as a writing technique include the morally ambiguous character of Hamlet (Shakespeare), the conversation of the dancing couple in Hills Like White Elephants (Ernest Hemingway), Marcher’s secret in The Beast in the Jungle (Henry James), and the double meaning of the Mending Wall (Robert Frost), among many others.
Here are random syntactically ambiguous sentences and headlines. Can you spot the ambiguities in them?
- Lung Cancer in Women Mushrooms
- Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim
- Milk Drinkers are Turning to Powder
- Reagan Wins on Budget, but More Lies Ahead
- I found a bat in the forest.
- Jenny gave a bath to her puppy wearing a pink shirt.
- How do you make a turtle fast?
This bundle contains 5 ready-to-use ambiguity worksheets that are perfect to test student knowledge and understanding of what ambiguity is and how it can be used. You can use these ambiguity worksheets in the classroom with students, or with home schooled children as well.
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Link will appear as Ambiguity Examples and Worksheets: https://kidskonnect.com - KidsKonnect, July 17, 2017
Use With Any Curriculum
These worksheets have been specifically designed for use with any international curriculum. You can use these worksheets as-is, or edit them using Google Slides to make them more specific to your own student ability levels and curriculum standards.