Ambiguity occurs when the meaning of a word, a phrase, or a sentence can have two possible interpretations, and the reader cannot determine from the sentence which is correct.

Ambiguity can occur on four levels:

  • Words (lexical ambiguity)
  • Sentences (structural/grammatical ambiguity)
  • Ideas (ambiguity of scope)
  • Context (pragmatic ambiguity)

Lexical Ambiguity

Lexical ambiguity occurs because words have multiple meanings. For example, sharp may describe a knife-edge, or it may refer to a musical note. Other words have multiple meanings. The various definitions of the word "set," for example, occupy twenty pages of the OED.

For example: Consider the sentence frame, "he ____-ed a date. Date here may refer to a fruit, a day of the year, an appointment, a romantic encounter, the person one goes to dinner or some event with. If one fills the blank with "picked" the sentence is still ambiguous among three possibilities: he chose a day of the year, he made an appointment, or he took a piece of fruit from the tree or from a plate of food offerings.

To resolve lexical ambiguity, make sure the meaning of the term is clear from the sentence: "He picked a date to hold the meeting."

Structural or Grammatical Ambiguity

Structural or grammatical ambiguity occurs when the reader can't determine the intended meaning because the sentence contains two competing grammatical structures.

For example: The sentence, "Talented women and men should do this work," has two possible readings. First, the sentence can mean "[Talented women] and men should do this work." In this case, the men need not be talented to do this work, but the women must be talented. Second, the sentence can mean "[Talented women] and [talented men] should do this work. Both the women and the men should be talented.

Likewise the statement, "They can fish," has two possible meanings. First, "they are able to fish," which can mean that they have the ability or the opportunity to do so. Second, the statement can mean that they put fish into cans, a manufacturing or storing process.

To resolve structural/grammatical ambiguities, rephrase the sentence.

Ambiguity of Scope

We use certain words to indicate logical relationships between elements in a sentence:

  • And - Although "and" has five distinct uses, one of the most important uses is that of logical conjunction. The statement, "It is rainy and windy" has the logical structure, "It is rainy & it is windy."
  • Or can indicate disjunction. When I tell a child "Either you are going to take a bath or you are going to bed," I am expressing exclusive disjunction. The child will either bathe or sleep, there are no other choices.
  • Not expresses negation.
  • Sentences that follow the "if/then" pattern or use "only if" may indicate a conditional.

Used appropriately, these operators effectively communicate the logical relationships between ideas.

Some sentences are ambiguous because we don't know which logical operator determines the meaning of the sentence. Consider the following sentence:

Joe will diet and exercise only if his doctor approves.

The sentence has two logical operators:"and" and "only if." The trouble is that neither is clearly dominant. Is Joe going to diet regardless, but exercise only if his doctor approves, or does he need his doctor's approval for both activities.

As with structural/grammatical ambiguities, resolve ambguities of scope by rephrasing the sentence..

Pragmatic Ambiguity

Pragmatic ambiguity occurs when the interpretation depends on the context of the situation, and the context fails to provide a clear resolution.

For example, the statement, "I don't know that he is right" can mean "I doubt that he is right," or it can mean that the speaker denies that the person referred to possesses the requisite knowledge.

Again, rephrase the sentence or clarify it with additional information.


Ornament: Using Sentence Patterns Effectively-->



"Ambiguity." The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy ed. Robert Audi. (New York: Cambridge UP, 1995) 21.

"Ambiguity." The Oxford Companion to the English Language ed. Tom McArthur (New York: Oxford UP, 1992) 32-33.

"Semantics." The Linguistics Encyclopedia ed. Kirsten Malmkjaer (New York: Routledge, 1991) 394-395.

Ross, J. F. Portraying Analogy (New York: Cambridge UP, 1981) 80-81.

Copyright 2001 - James Dubinsky, Marie C. Paretti, Mark Armstrong