Ambiguity comes in visual as well as linguistic forms: the duck–rabbit illusion is a good example (the duck faces left, the rabbit faces right).
A white vase, or two silhouette profiles facing each other?
Is she spinning clockwise or anti-clockwise? To switch, try following the shadow for a while instead; then look up to the raised leg itself.
In linguistic text, ambiguity is the possibility of two quite different meanings with exactly the same wording. Identifying and correcting ambiguity can sharpen your writing and copy-editing skills. Ambiguity occurs in all languages, but English is particularly prone. Unlike other Germanic languages, much of its morphological grammar was stripped away more than a thousand years ago; so the way modern English phrases and clauses relate to each other is complicated, and many words can function in several ways.
The same word, for example, can often serve as a noun or a verb ("Union demands increased unemployment", "we saw her duck"), and many words have multiple meanings ("prostitutes appeal to the pope", "the children made tasty meals"). There can be grammatical ambiguity, beyond the scope of individual words: "we asked how old Joe was" (how old was he? or how was he doing?); and "The chicken is ready to eat" (ready for us to eat it, or ready to eat its feed in the yard?).
English does have unfortunate engineering faults, such as the idiomatic ambiguity in "I can't recommend this dish too highly";1 and let's not forget words that—embarrassingly—can convey starkly opposite meanings ("in this city they sanction drug-dealing"; "she secretly replaced the cup she had chipped"). Hyphens (and en dashes) can make a difference ("a senior class teacher" is a class teacher who is senior, but "a senior-class teacher" teaches a senior class; see MOS:HYPHEN). So can commas ("The author thanked her parents, Sinéad O'Connor and President Obama", referring to four rather than two people).
Ambiguity may be removed by changing the word order, the grammar, or the punctuation, or by substituting a word that is unambiguous in the context.
The exercises below are meant to be entertaining. Often the task is a puzzle, and some of the unintended meanings can be amusing. To make it more challenging, ambiguous sentences are mixed randomly with some that are unambiguous: it would be too easy if you knew that every example was ambiguous. Some that are ambiguous would be perfectly fine in a larger context, and some wouldn't; but here, you're asked to consider the examples in isolation. This is a laboratory situation, if you like.
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1Some of the examples in the lead are adapted from a book by Noel Burton-Roberts, from a NYT-affiliated website, and from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, all cited below.
Instructions: Decide whether this is ambiguous or not; then click on your decision. (If you think it is ambiguous, first think through what the alternative meanings are.) Then click on show at the right of whichever decision you've made.
Sorry, it is ambiguous. The crux of the problem lies in the word "by".
The missing iPod was found by the hotel.
Try thinking it through again; then click on the next box.
Correct. Was it found next to the hotel (on the passageway by the hotel), or was it found by an employee of the hotel? By can mean location or agency.
Yes. At is the problem. Are the dogs barking while they stand at the entrance (the verb is "bark"), or are they looking at the entrance and barking at it (the phrasal verb is "bark at")?
Whether and how you rephrase this depends on the context. The example comes from a promotional page for Noel Burton-Roberts's book Analysing sentences: an introduction to English syntax, 3rd ed., Pearson Longman, 2010.
The government is ready to share the lessons learned with the people.
Wrong. How does "learned" fit into the sentence, exactly?
Right. Did the government learn the lessons together with the people (and now wants to share those lessons with unstated entities)? Or did the government learn the lessons and now wants to share them with the people?
Put the ornament on the chair by the door in the living room.
Wrong. This is a problem that English is particularly prone to, because it's lost most of the tags that show how the components of a sentence relate to each other. There are three possible meanings; try to think of each.
Yes. There are three possible meanings; try to identify them in your mind before clicking on "Extra" below.
Here are the three possible meanings:
Put the ornament onto the chair that is by the door in the living room.
Take the ornament that is on the chair and put it by the door in the living room.
Take the ornament off the chair that is by the door and put it in the living room.
Does "turning to" mean "turning into" or "resorting to"? Beer drinkers could be morphing into talcum powder or they could be changing their preferred drug from alcohol to cocaine. Another example from Burton-Roberts's Analysing sentences: an introduction to English syntax.
The impact on the world economy of new and rapid networks of transport and communications at the end of the 19th century was at least as dramatic as the transformation wrought by the Internet and the deregulation and liberalization of financial markets a century later.
Nope, it's quite clear. This quotation comes from Tony Judt's wonderful book Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945, New York, Penguin, 2005, p. 793. Sadly, Judt died in 2010 at the age of only 61.
More surprisingly to Halperin, some gay commentators were extremely critical, seeing in his course descriptions a reversal of blatant stereotypes that excluded many homosexual men.
Wrong! What was doing the excluding?
Correct. Was it the course descriptions or the the blatant stereotypes that excluded many homosexual men? I'm still unsure.
The sentence is from Dennis Altman's review of David M Halperin's new book How To Be Gay (Sydney Morning Herald, 29–30 September 2012). The wickedest thing Altman says, by the way, is: "More interesting than the book is that [it's] published by Harvard University Press ..."!
We enable code contributions from community and staff while protecting the quality and security of MediaWiki as it supports our projects.
Well, the problem word is "as".
Correct. Is it a because "as" or a while "as"? "As" is a badly engineered word in English, often best substituted by "since" or "because" where the meaning is causal. I'm still unsure whether it means (i) protecting while MediaWiki supports our projects, or (ii) protecting because MediaWiki supports our projects. I've pointed this out, but the Wikimedia Foundation still hadn't fixed their wording at the time of writing this exercise.