Ambiguous: Capable of being understood in two or more possible senses, doubtful, uncertain, obscure
The subtleties of language often create a delicious "mélange of meanings" for the mind. Most of us, in our playful moments, enjoy the multiplicity of ways in which words, phrases, and sentences can be used. I became fascinated with the ambiguous aspects of language while I was conducting research in linguistic humor. I discovered that 4 of the 10 humor elements I classified and examined were based on ambiguity (Spector, 1990, 1997, 2002). This inspired me to delve further into the various aspects of ambiguity.
Why We Need to Be Concerned about Multiple Meaning Comments
There are numerous ways ambiguity can cause major problems in our lives:
- Ambiguities can break up marriages, cause arguments with our children and other relatives, and trigger quarrels with our best friends because we don't always say what we mean, or mean what we say. The English language has much room for interpretation, or misinterpretation. An awareness of the different ways our conversations can become ambiguous, may reduce future misinterpretations.
- Being unable to grasp the correct interpretation of ambiguous language can have a harmful effect on our ability (child, adolescent, or adult) to understand academic materials. Children and adolescents may face problems in school because, according to Arnold and Hornett (1990) and Boatner and Gates (1975), at least one third of "teacher talk" is ambiguous. Classroom lectures and discussions may not be properly understood, which would affect academic performance.
- Textbooks and other reading materials are laced with ambiguities, so literacy could be affected.
- Our ability to interact in social situations may be impacted. Children are expected to use and understand slang, puns, jokes, and riddles that are based on ambiguity by the time they reach adolescence. If they can't, it could prove to be embarrassing and have an adverse effect on their social interactions. No matter what your age, the desire to "fit in" with your peers is strong.
- The presence of ambiguous language is especially difficult for individuals from culturally and linguistically diverse groups. Expressions that can be taken in multiple ways differ from country to country and from region to region within a country. As an example, humor--which often is based on multiple meaning words, phrases, or sentences--is probably one of the last aspects of culture that a second language learner understands (Cheng, 1996).
Life is confusing enough without having to worry about whether we understand what other people are really saying or what we read, or being concerned about whether we are properly understood. Developing an understanding of ambiguous language ensures that we don't lose the pleasure found in grasping humor and word play based on ambiguity, and enhances our ability to function in our environment. Even if you generally understand multiple-meaning expressions, it's possible to sharpen your skills by knowing what causes ambiguous language and by developing your ability to deal with, or when warranted, to create ambiguous statements.
What Causes Language to Be Ambiguous?
An Effort to Maintain the Natural Flow of Conversation
One reason we don't express ourselves clearly may be our efforts to maintain the natural flow of conversational language. For example, we often use pronouns in place of a word with a specific referent (such as a proper noun). "Sally played with her sister while she was home sick." To whom does "she" refer? Was Sally home sick, or her sister? We can't give an appropriate interpretation to this statement unless we know the context in which it was made. If the statement had been "Sally played with her sister while Sally was home sick" it would not be ambiguous, but would certainly sound stilted and redundant.