ambiguity


ambiguity
ambiguity
1. Ambiguity in language denotes the possibility of more than one meaning being understood from what is heard or read. Intentional ambiguity can be effective, for example as a literary device or in advertising. Our concern here is with unintentional and misleading ambiguity that occurs in ordinary speech and writing, most often as a result of poor word order. The Fowlers (1906) devoted several pages to ambiguities of this kind, but their (mostly literary) examples now seem contrived and unreal, as do many of the examples given in grammar books.
2. Typical ambiguities in everyday language usually involve the association of a word or phrase with the wrong part of the sentence (The council plans to notify parents whose children are affected by post, where by post should be placed after parents), or the unclear application of a negative (They did not go out to water the plants, which can mean either they did not go out at all, or they did go out but not to water the plants; similarly with the type We did not go to the shops because we were expecting visitors: see because 2).
3. Ambiguity also arises from words that have more than one meaning or function, as in Visiting friends can be tiresome / the famous line The peasants are revolting / The Minister appealed to her supporters, and from false or unclear reference, as in If the children don't like their toys, get rid of them / We only have two first editions (and no other books?).
In speech, ambiguity is nearly always eliminated by intonation; in writing, attention to these relatively few problem areas will be enough to avoid the ambiguities that matter.

Modern English usage. 2014.

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