What is Ambiguity?

Ambiguity is an idea or situation that can be understood or interpreted in multiple ways.  

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This concept includes ambiguous sentences, and ambiguous storylines and arguments – teachers may even have written that your essay points are ‘too ambiguous’!  It is often viewed in a negative light, since clarity in writing is normally valued as it makes clear to a reader what is happening, but sometimes ambiguity can be beneficial.

There are a number of different types of ambiguity in literature, but these are a few of the more important:

Semantic Ambiguity
When a word has multiple meanings it is called “polysemy” and many words in English are polysemous.  For example, the word ‘play’ is polysemous, as someone can play all kinds of things.

Syntactic Ambiguity
Syntactic ambiguity is the presence of two or more possible meanings in a single sentence or phrase, and arises as a result of the structure of a sentence rather than its words.  While each word in a sentence may be able to be understood on an individual basis, the combination results in confusion.  For example, “Look at that man on the hill with a telescope” could be that the man has a telescope, or that the person being spoken to needs to look at the man using a telescope.

Narrative Ambiguity
This is when a story or idea could mean different things, and it isn’t made clear by the author – for example, the nature of a relationship between two characters.

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Why be Ambiguous?

  • Encourage multiple interpretations:  Writers sometimes use ambiguity intentionally, which forces the reader to decide their own interpretation of what is being communicated based on their thoughts, feelings and experiences.
  • Provide a greater depth and meaning:  In a similar way, the introduction of ambiguity allows the reader to use their imagination to explore a range of meanings, which also greatly encourages a reader to develop empathy.
  • Create confusion:  While multiple ideas and meanings can be effective to help make a point, they can also be used so as to intentionally confuse a reader, further helping to build understanding and empathy.

Examples of Ambiguity

In the ‘The Sick Rose’ (English Romantic Verse) by William Blake, ambiguity is used in order to encourage multiple interpretations.

Many of the words throughout the poem show an degree of ambiguity, encouraging a reader to consider potential double meanings, particularly ones that are darker and more sexual.  This was particularly relevant at a time in which social attitudes were much more conservative.

“Has found out thy bed // Of crimson joy”

John Keats also uses ambiguity in ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ (English Romantic Verse), for the purposes of encouraging multiple interpretations.

The use of this technique begins on the very first line with the word “still” – in this case, it may mean “an unmoving object or it may be interpreted as “yet unchanged”.  This is in keeping with the overall idea of the poem, which considers the placement in time and memory of figures painted on an urn, and by extension how people are remembered.

“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness…”


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