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Types of ambiguity - English language

AMBIGUITY, grammar, Homophones, lexical Ambiguity, Phonological

Ambiguity, structural Ambiguity.metaphorical Ambiguity

Ambiguity means that one sentence may have more than one meaning and the
possibility of interpreting in two or more distinct ways. Ambiguity may
be phonological, lexical, structural or metaphorical.

1- Phonological AMBIGUITY

In Alice in Wonderland, the mouse says "Mine is a long and sad tale" and Alice
repeats, "It's a long tail", with the homophones"tail/tale" being different words
that are pronounced the same.
Such homophones create phonological ambiguity, i.e. with the word being
understood in more than one way. Similarly, words like "flour" and "flower",are
homophones leading to phonological ambiguity.

Homophones, thus, are pronounced the same regardless of whether they are spelt the
same or differently. In spite of their identical pronunciation, the words have different
2- Lexical AMBIGUITY

Lexical ambiguity is the ambiguity of an individual word or phrase that can be used (in
different contexts) to express two or more different meanings.

In addition to lexical ambiguity, sentences may be ambiguous at the sentence level due to
the sentence having two possible underlying structures.

For example, in the sentence "The English history teacher has been promoted', the
subject noun phrase "the English history teacher" has two possible meanings. One
meaning is "the English teacher of history" where the adjective "English" modifies
"teacher" with reference to her nationality.

The other meaning is "the teacher of English history" where the adjective "English"
modifies "history".

Similarly, the sentence "They hate visiting relatives" is ambiguous at the structural level
due to having two underlying structures. One is "They hate to visit relatives", where the
head of the noun phrase "visiting relatives" is the gerund "visiting". The other possible
meaning is "They hate relatives who visit" where "visiting" is an adjective describing/
modifying "relatives".

Another structurally ambiguous sentence is "I know a man with a dog who has a flu". The
relative clause "who has a flu" modifies either "a man" or "a dog" so that either the man
has a flu or the dog has a flu.

Another structurally ambiguous sentence is "She found a book on Main Street."

"On Main street" either specifies the location where the book was found (Compare "I
found a book in the garden"), or specifies the subject matter of the book -- (Compare to "I
found a book on linguistics").

Another source of ambiguity results from the use of metaphor which produces two
meanings: one literal, the other metaphorical. An example of this is the metaphor "That
doctor is a butcher" where two meanings are possible. Metaphorically it implies that this
doctor operates in butcher-like manner, e.g. by operating unnecessarily, or leaving scars,
etc. At the literal level, it can also mean that this surgeon has another (part-time?)
profession; he works part of his time as a butcher when he is not treating patients.
Similarly, the metaphor "John is a fox (or snake)" has two possible meanings.
Metaphorically it implies that John is as cunning astuto, deceitful engaoso, or treacherous
tracionero as a fox or snake.
With some imagination to conceive of a literal meaning, one can build up a context where
the speaker is a circus trainer who owns this trained fox or snake, or where the speaker is
an individual owning this pet fox or snake and calling it John!
If one insists on seeking two possible interpretations whenever encountering a metaphor,
this may lead to some disappointment.

Consider, for example, the metaphorical expression "Walls have ears". Metaphorically, it
implies a similarity between "walls" and "ears" in that both of them can hear what is being
said nearby. However, it needs an absurd extension of imagination to conceive of a wall
with hearing organs if one insists on a literal interpretation.
Similarly, the proverbial "Time is money" is easy to interpret metaphorically in terms of
the value of time being equal to that of money in terms of both being divisible into
measurable units, or time units at work being evaluated in terms of money (e.g. when
working over time, or deciding on a worker's fees on an hourly basis).
Whether ambiguity is lexical, structural or metaphorical, it is definitely an enriching
practice of language endowing it with multiple meanings. It also brings to the fore our
awareness of the multiple layers of language meaning.