Definition of Ambiguity

Ambiguity occurs when something is open to more than one interpretation. Ambiguity is possible in literature, ideas, statements, arts, music, and math. At times, ambiguity is reliant on context; something can be ambiguous in one situation while unambiguous in another. For example, consider the short phrase, “I read the book.” This sentence alone could refer to the present or the past, as the word “read” in English is spelled the same way in the present and past tenses. However, if we change the sentence to “I read the book when I was 7,” that clears up the ambiguity and places the context in the past tense.

Difference Between Ambiguity and Vagueness

At first glance, it may seem that ambiguity and vagueness are nearly homonymic, as the definition of ambiguity allows for more than one potential conclusion. However, the possible interpretations of an ambiguous situation or phrase are limited and stem logically from the information presented. Vagueness, on the other hand, refers to a situation in which no interpretation can be successfully drawn because the information given is not clear enough.

Common Examples of Ambiguity

We experience ambiguity on a daily basis, whether in ordinary language and conversation, or while watching politicians or comedians. Here are some simple sentences that have more than one possible interpretation:

  • The bark was painful. (Could mean a tree’s bark was rough or a dog’s bark communicated pain or hurt the listener’s ears).
  • You should bring wine or beer and dessert. (Could mean that you must bring just wine, wine and dessert, or beer and dessert).
  • Harry isn’t coming to the party. Tell Joe that we’ll see him next week. (The “him” could refer either to Harry or to Joe).

Some comedians have made jokes that rely on ambiguity in language that we take for granted:

  • Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read. –Groucho Marx
  • I haven’t slept for ten days, because that would be too long. –Mitch Hedberg

Meanwhile, politicians can cleverly use ambiguity to avoid having to really answer a question or state an opinion. For example, when President Bush was asked about finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he said, “But for those who say we haven’t found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they’re wrong, we found them.” In this case, “them” could refer to either the manufacturing devices or the banned weapons, and therefore skates around the issue of whether the actual weapons were found.

Significance of Ambiguity in Literature

Ambiguity can be a powerful tool in literature when an author uses it intentionally. Ambiguous situations can force the reader to decide what happens in a story for him- or herself. This decision about which interpretation to choose thus reflects on the reader’s own psychology. If a reader is an optimistic person, for example, she or he might decide that things ended well, or if the reader has recently gone through a bad breakup he or she might decide that a betrayal was intentional rather than accidental. Authors sometimes write ambiguous endings in their books precisely to create situations that ask the reader to bring their own experience to bear to decide what happened.

Many philosophers have explored the nature of ambiguity, and have concluded that it is an inevitable part of human existence. Psychologists have also researched how people deal with and tolerate ambiguity; being able to tolerate ambiguity seems to be an important element for creativity and being open-minded. Thus, while ambiguity can occur at the sentence level in literature, the ambiguity presented in characters’ motivations and in plot lines can be important to help readers develop their own tolerance for it and thus their psychological well-being.

Examples of Ambiguity in Literature

Example #1

Her right arm lay on the cushioned parapet before her. She raised her hand, and made a slight, quick movement toward the right. No one but her lover saw her. Every eye but his was fixed on the man in the arena.

He turned, and with a firm and rapid step he walked across the empty space. Every heart stopped beating, every breath was held, every eye was fixed immovably upon that man. Without the slightest hesitation, he went to the door on the right, and opened it.

(“The Lady, or the Tiger?” by Frank R. Stockton)

This is a famous example of ambiguity in literature; Stockton’s short story ends at this point when a man has either chosen a door behind which waits a tiger or a beautiful woman. His lover, the princess, has indicated which door he should choose, but it’s up to the reader to decide if she wants him alive and married to another woman, or is jealous enough to prefer his death.

Example #2

‘Come to lunch some day,’ he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.
‘Keep your hands off the lever,’ snapped the elevator boy.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said Mr. McKee with dignity, ‘I didn’t know I was touching it.’
‘All right,’ I agreed, ‘I’ll be glad to.’
…I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.
‘Beauty and the Beast…Loneliness…Old Grocery Horse…Brook’n Bridge…’
Then I was lying half asleep in the lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morning Tribune, and waiting for the four o’clock train.

(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Fitzgerald uses many ambiguity examples in his masterpiece The Great Gatsby. This excerpt is particularly interesting, though, because there is enough ambiguity to lead to a reading in which the narrator, Nick Carraway, is gay. There are a few significant words in the passage, such as the choice of “groaned” and the juxtaposition of Mr. McKee saying he didn’t know he was touching the lever with Carraway saying, “I’ll be glad to.” This is the one time Fitzgerald uses ellipses in the book, and they seem to elide over an event that leads to Mr. McKee sitting in bed only in his underwear.

Example #3

Exhaustion was pressing upon and overpowering her.

“Good-by—because I love you.” He did not know; he did not understand. He would never understand. Perhaps Doctor Mandelet would have understood if she had seen him—but it was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone.

(The Awakening by Kate Chopin)

The end of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is another famous ambiguity example. Chopin strongly suggests that the main character, Edna, dies at the end of the novel. However, it is unclear whether Edna has purposefully committed suicide or unintentionally gotten swept away in the waves. Most readers and scholars assume that this is an act of suicide, but Chopin leaves enough ambiguity so that readers can come to their own conclusions.

Example #4

I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes…

(Ulysses by James Joyce)

This excerpt is one of many examples of ambiguity in James Joyce’s classic Ulysses. Molly Bloom is thinking many different thoughts and remembering different events here, and ultimately agrees to Leopold’s marriage proposal. However, in her stream of consciousness there is some ambiguity about the person and/or people the different masculine pronouns refer to. They may refer to Leopold, or to other previous lovers.

Test Your Knowledge of Ambiguity

1. Which of the following statements is the best ambiguity definition?
A. A statement that is so unclear that no conclusion can be drawn from it.
B. An event or utterance from which more than one interpretation can be made.
C. A situation in which a character doesn’t care what the outcome is.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following Mitch Hedberg jokes contains an example of ambiguity?
A. I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.
B. This shirt is “dry-clean only”… Which means it’s dirty.
C. I like rice. Rice is great when you’re hungry and you want 2,000 of something.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. In Frank R. Stockton’s short story, “The Lady, or the Tiger?” do you think the princess indicates to the man to choose the door behind which is the lady or the door with the tiger?
A. Lady—the princess would have been too saddened by the man’s death and thus chooses for him to marry another woman.
B. Tiger—the princess would have been too jealous to allow the man to marry another woman and instead chooses for him to die.
C. Not sure
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]Answer: There is no correct answer. Because the ending of the story is ambiguous, you, as the reader and interpreter, get to decide.[/spoiler]