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Wednesday, November 21, 2012


When something has more than one clear meaning, it is defined as being ambiguous in nature. Similarly the OED defines ambiguity as the “capability of being understood in two or more ways; double or dubious signification, ambiguousness”. For example, if “he read the book on the couch” does it mean he read the book that was on the couch, or did he read the book while sitting on the couch? Ambiguities like these are called syntactical ambiguities. They deal with syntax and sentence construction and depending on the way the phrase or sentence is read, it can be understood differently. Subjectively, ambiguity means the hesitation of a person to make a decision. Basically in this case, to resolve someone’s ambiguity would be to help them make up their mind.
The word ambiguity is the noun form of the word ambiguous which itself is the combination of the Latin words ambi, basically meaning two or both ways as in ambivalent or ambidextrous, and agӗre meaning to drive or to lead to. Originally agӗre was a literal term actually meaning the physical force of driving/leading something forwards. However it gradually mutated into meaning to drive or to get to an understanding. Hence, ambi + agӗre will give you the literal translation of two ways to drive at a meaning. Chronologically, the objective form of ambiguity is the first to appear in the English language. In 1528 Thomas More uses the word ambiguous in his Dialogue Heresyes IV as “If it wer nowe doubtful & ambiguous whether the church of Christ wer in the right rule of doctrine or not.
Ambiguities can be found in all areas of life that involve thinking. Mathematical, visual, lexical, philosophical, musical, psychological are only some of the kinds of ambiguities commonly found in study. Since each person thinks and interprets any subject at hand in a different way, different interpretations for that single subject will arise – hence the result of an ambiguity. In this way, ambiguity is sometimes confused with the concept of vagueness. If something is ambiguous, it means that that something doesn’t have a single clear interpretation, but each interpretation is a clear idea.  Conversely, vagueness constitutes that the subject at hand has absolutely no clear elucidation.
Generally, it is wise to avoid the use of ambiguity in work. However, there are chances when a person may want to purposely employ ambiguity as a way to “cover all bases”. In other words, to use the other interpretation as a means of escape.

The Necker Cube - an example of visual ambiguity


"ambiguity, n." OED Online, accessed November 17, 2012, Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/6144?redirectedFrom=ambiguity&

"ambiguous, adj." OED Online, accessed November 17, 2012, Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/6145?redirectedFrom=ambiguous#eid

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