Ambiguity and Vagueness

 © 2010 by Jensen DG. Mañebog
AMBIGUITY IS THE QUALITY of having more than one meaning or being open to more than one interpretation.  A state of being uncertain or unclear, it specifically occurs when there are definite interpretations, but as to which interpretation is meant is unclear. In most writing and speaking, ambiguity poses a problem as it can lead to the misinterpretation of the intended message.
            With the possible exception of scientific terms, almost every word in a natural language has more than one use. When a term has acquired too many uses that it becomes very difficult to determine the meaning, then the term has become ambiguous. A good example is the various uses of the term man. Consider the following:

            Man their best shooter! (Verb – e.g. to guard)
            Man is a vertebrate. (the species homo sapiens)
            Get that man! (a certain man)
            The son of man (If Christ is referred to, “man” particularly refers to Mary)

            Another good example is the term ‘good’ in moral philosophy (Ethics). From the ancient times to the present, this term is heavily burdened with a long history of contradictory uses. Philosophers use the term differently depending on the context they are playing.
            If one were a hedonist, the term good would be used to refer to bodily pleasure. Any act which promotes corporal pleasure is thus good. If one were a humanist, the word good would refer to the actions which support the development of intellectual potential. If one were a utilitarian, any action that encourages the greatest happiness for the greatest number is good. If one were a logical positivist, he would use the term good to express his approval. Alternatively, if one were Kantian, an action is good if it is done in accordance with his duty. Or if one were a preacher, he would say perhaps that something is good if it contributes to the attainment of salvation. Hence, excessive love for money may be good to a hedonist but not to a Christian preacher.

In contrast, when a term is vague, this means that something went wrong with the intension or what is referred to by the term or concept. For example, the intension of the term some in Symbolic Logic states, “at least one but not all”. But the question is, how many is “some”? If I say, “Some politicians are corrupt”, how many politicians am I talking about? Or if I say “Some students are honest”, how many students are honest? At least one but not all??
            In ordinary language, terms like a few, many, almost all, are good examples of vague terms. Uses of these terms leave us guessing how many items are being talked about.
            When a term is vague, one antidote is to clarify the intension of the concept (the qualifications or identifying marks) to make it more comprehensible. For instance, instead of just saying, “Many students are not only intelligent but also beautiful”, it would be better to say, “Many students whoare taking up Logic are not only intelligent but also beautiful.” By putting that qualification, it is clear that the term “many” in the sentence means nearly all*.

Both can produce confusion

Either ambiguous or vague concepts create confusion. For instance, one may use the term “church” to refer to the congregation or group of people, and in the same breath, use the same term without warning and qualification to refer to a temple or house of worship. And if someone said:  “I don't like that church because it's too big,” a listener would not know whether the person did not like the size of the church building or the size of the church membership. Logicians have a term for this confusion; they call it fallacy of equivocation. The following argument commits such a fallacy:

            Nothing is better than God.
            ‘Siopao’ is better than nothing.
            Therefore, ‘Siopao’ is better than God.

            Obviously, the problem here is in the term ‘nothing.’ As mentioned earlier, in order to avoid linguistic confusion, one has to define or qualify the terms. Sometimes, it is not wrong to be lengthy in discourse (either in writing or speaking) as long as it avoids or minimizes confusion.

Ambiguous and Vague Statement
The distinguishing mark of an ambiguous statement is that it can be taken to mean many different statements, such that in some language games or contexts it may be taken to be true, but in others, false. Hence there is an apparent inconsistency or even contradiction.
            If after accomplishing an arduous task in a remote area a sociologist says, “My job here is over,” a listener might suppose that he is resigning from his work for he is fed up with his duty. But another listener might as well think, and for that matter he could be right, that the sociologist is just expressing his wish to finally take a rest for he has been away from his family for many months.
            And how about this statement:The organist plays the musical organ by ear.
            Ambiguity and vagueness indeed create confusion. Nevertheless, they are sometimes advantageous and even essential in diplomacy and polite conversation. Instead of specifying the students who did not do their project for instance, sometimes the teacher just diplomatically says, “Some of us were not able to submit their projects.” The use of the term some is indeed unclear for it does not identify those referred to, yet is more polite and not offending.

Ambiguous Comparisons  
In some instances, it may be unclear whether the second part of the comparison is intended as a subject or as an object. To avoid such ambiguity, fill in as many words as necessary for clarity.

AMBIGUOUS                        Peter likes Barnabas better than Paul.
REVISED                                Peter likes Barnabas better than he (Peter) likes Paul.
REVISED                                Peter likes Barnabas better than Paul does.
Ambiguous Reference           
Whenever a pronoun is used, its antecedent should be clear to the reader. Correct ambiguous reference by rephrasing the sentence or by repeating one of the nouns.

Ambiguous-                When Paul attacked Peter in public, he was very angry. (Who was angry, Paul or   
Revised-                       Peter was very angry when Paul attacked him in public
Revised-                       Paul was very angry when he attacked Peter in public

Ambiguous-                There’s a fly in your salad; do you want to eat it? (the salad or the fly?)
Revised-                       There’s a fly in your salad, do you want to ask for another salad.

Sometimes the thing that is possessed can have double meaning.  For example, in the sentence:  "Everlasting life is one of Christ’s graces,” the term graces could refer to those given by Christ to His ‘sheep’, or the rewards given to Christ by the Father.

Negative sentences  
Sometimes a sentence using the word “not” is phrased in such a way that it is ambiguous, as in the sentence:  “I'm not Protestant because my ex girlfriend is.” Two possible interpretations: 1) He is not a Protestant because his ex-girlfriend is (and perhaps he hates her); 2) He is a Protestant—though not because his ex-girlfriend is, but because of another reason (conviction perhaps).

1. Give an example of a vague or ambiguous phrase or sentence commonly used in English or Filipino, and rephrase it to become clear.
          Write your answer in the comment section of this article. Click first the 'Recommend' button before typing anything in the comment section.

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