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Stylistics Assist.

Lecturer: Aram Kamil

Ambiguity
Ambiguity is a phenomenon whereby an expression form has more than
one meaning, and may therefore cause confusion.
Typically, the speaker intends just one of the alternative meanings and
expects the hearer to attend to that meaning. The process of establishing
a single interpretation for an ambiguous word or sentence is known as
disambiguation.
1. Lexical ambiguity
This type of ambiguity arises when a sentence contains a word which
has more than one meaning. For example:

 What an excellent organizer!


The word organizer is ambiguous because it may be interpreted as 'a
person who plans things carefully', or 'a device for storing
information'.
 She could not bear children.
The word bear means either 'could not give birth to children', or
'could not put up with children'.
2. Sentential ambiguity
This type of ambiguity, alternatively called structural or grammatical,
arises when the structure of a sentence has two or more meanings.
Sentential ambiguity is of two subtypes.
The first subtype is called grouping ambiguity. This occurs when a
phrase in a sentence can be arranged in two ways, and so can have two
readings, as in She invited young boys and girls. In the first reading, the
word young is grouped with boys and girls, resulting in 'young boys and
Stylistics Assist. Lecturer: Aram Kamil

young girls'. In the second reading, the word young is grouped with boys
alone, resulting in 'young boys and girls'.
The second subtype is function ambiguity. This occurs when a phrase in
a sentence fulfills two or more grammatical functions, as in the ringing
of the bells. This is a noun phrase which could mean either “the bells are
ringing” or “someone is ringing the bells”. In the first reading, the word
bell functions as subject. In the second reading, the word bell functions
as object.
Exercises:
Study each of the following sentences carefully and underline the word
that makes the sentence ambiguous. Then, give the two possible
meanings for each.
1. She waited near the bank.
2. The boy looks backward.
3. Jim took me to the court.
4. She broke the glasses.
5. It must be a new record.
6. I need a paper.
Answer keys:
1. bank: margin of a river/a financial institution
2. backward: a place that is behind/less developed
3. take: give me a lift/take a legal action against me
4. glasses: drinking vessels/a pair of lenses in a frame
5. record: a disc on which music is recorded/the best result especially
in sport
6. A newspaper or a sheet of paper
Stylistics Assist. Lecturer: Aram Kamil

Study each of the following utterances carefully and underline the


structure that causes the sentence to be ambiguous. Then, give the two
possible interpretations for each.
1. We talked about the party last night.
2. Small boys and girls are easily frightened.
3. The chicken is ready to eat.
4. That is just a crazy lawyer's idea.
5. There is a café in the district which I like.
6. In The host met the guest with a smile.
7. He is an English teacher.
8. Visiting relatives can be boring.
9. I saw her in the street.

Answer keys:
1. Either we talked about the party which was held last night, or we
talked last night about the party.
2. Either small boys only and other girls, or small boys and small
girls.
3. Either the chicken is ready to eat something, or the chicken is
ready for us to eat.
4. Either the idea is crazy, or the lawyer is crazy.
5. Either I like the café, or I like the district.
6. The prepositional phrase with a smile can be grouped either with
the word host or with the word guest.
7. Either he teaches English or he is an English native speaker.
8. Either it is boring to visit relatives or relatives who visit are boring.
9. I saw her when I was in the street, or I saw her when she was in the
street.