This Thing Called “Ambiguity”… (LanguageDose) By Adepoju Olalekan

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This Thing Called “Ambiguity”… LanguageDose By Adepoju Olalekan


Have you ever encountered a statement and seemed confused of its direct simple meaning because of the possibility of deriving more than one interpretation for such statement? Yes? Good! That suggests you are an active being with a functioning language faculty. Well, such situations are technically termed ‘ambiguity’.

As defined by OALD 8th edition, ambiguity is a state of having a word or statement understood in more than one way. When such happens, either a particular word or a string of words in the statement necessitates the multiplicity of possible meanings. This leads me to the types of ambiguity

1. Lexical ambiguity: This occurs when the sentence contains a WORD (lexical item) which has more than one semantic entry in the dictionary. That is, polysemous words (words with many possible meanings) make statement ambiguous. For example:

i. The BANK is full (either a place of depositing money or a place of storing things (e.g. blood bank) is filled to capacity).

ii. The BEAT is outstanding (either the movement of a bird’s wings or the rhythmic unit of a music is outstanding)

2. Structural ambiguity: This occurs when a word or a string of words which forms the grammatical structure of the statement can be grouped and consequently interpreted in two different ways. A common example is MISTRUST WOUNDS. One the one hand, mistrust (as a noun) and wounds (as a verb) could mean “Suspicion hurts (people).” On the other hand, mistrust (as a verb) and wounds (as a noun) could be read as “(We should) mistrust injuries.

3. The third type is what I call discourse ambiguity. This occurs when a statement is possible to be interpreted in more than one way based on the context (cultural or situational). Check this scenario for instance: You are delivering an item you have just purchased for your mum and you ask, ‘WHERE SHOULD I DROP IT?’ And your mum says, ‘PUT IT ON MY HEAD.’ Your understanding of the context will let you know if you are to go with the literal meaning (put it on her head)- I’m sorry for you if you do this- or infer the intended meaning (put it somewhere safe).

In all, the sensibility and interpretation of a statement is lucidly generated when such is well situated. So, speak clearer and less ambiguous. And yes, a simple comma can save the stress of needless disambiguating.

Mind you, these are news headlines: “Lecturers Strike Idle Students”, “Jonathan Shelves Budget Presentation over Heckling Fears”, “Yinka Osobu Strikes Gold”. Do you see ambiguity in any?

Feel free to share other examples you know and let us see under which type of ambiguity such belong.


Adepoju Olalekan writes via and tweets via @dgretlekan

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