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Grammar mistakes and how to avoid them: ambiguity

Updated on April 13, 2012

A man walks into a pub and goes up to the bar.  "Do you serve prawns?" asks the man.  The barman looks at him and replies, "We serve anyone if they've got enough money on them."

This joke contains an example of ambiguity, where what is being said can have more than one meaning.  A lot of the time, we can use common sense to filter out the "wrong" meanings (obviously prawns will always be part of a pub's menu rather than its clientele!), but sometimes things aren't so clear cut.  This hub will help you avoid falling into the trap of ambiguity in your spoken and written English… unless of course you want to be ambiguous, that is!

Trust me: you will never, ever see one of these crossing the road.
Trust me: you will never, ever see one of these crossing the road. | Source

Lexical ambiguity

In the "Do you serve prawns?" question above, the ambiguity hinges on the fact that you can use the verb "serve" in more than one way - you can serve prawns to a person, but you can also serve the prawns themselves. This type of ambiguity - where one word can have two or more meanings - is known as lexical ambiguity. It isn't just verbs that can do double duty in this way, as the following examples of lexical ambiguity show:

  • Let us remove your shorts - sign on an electrician's van
  • A troupe of Girl Guides went for a tramp in the woods (actually, this one is a double yolker when it comes to ambiguity - both the phrase "went for" and the noun "tramp" can have at least two meanings…)
  • Mrs Gandhi stoned at rally in India - newspaper headline
  • New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group - another newspaper headline
  • The batsman's Holding, the bowler's Willie - from an actual radio cricket commentary. OK, so perhaps this one works better in spoken rather than written form!

Syntactic ambiguity

It is possible for a sentence or phrase to be ambiguous when none of the words has a double meaning. In this case, the ambiguity arises because the words are in the wrong order or some of them are missing.  This is known as syntactic ambiguity.  Here are some examples:

  • Always wait for the green man to cross - This is an actual road sign near where I live! (A better way to phrase it would have been Always wait for the green man to appear before you cross the road, but perhaps Kent County Council didn't have a big enough sign for that.)
  • For sale: antique desk suitable for lady with thick legs and large drawers - Better (but less funny) to have written For sale: antique desk with thick legs and large drawers. Suitable for lady. Notice the extra punctuation - see below for more on this subject.
  • British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands - newspaper headline. Changing it to British Left is Waffling on Falkland Islands would at least make it clear that the verb is "waffle" not "left"!
  • Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors - another newspaper headline. The simplest way to resolve this one is to change it to Hospitals are Sued by 7 Chiropodists.

Syntactic ambiguity can also be caused by wrong punctuation. A typical example would be this book dedication:

To my children, Anne and Peter

The ambiguity is in the identity of Anne and Peter: are they (a) the writer's children, or (b) two extra people who are not the writer's children?

If (a) is the real meaning, then you can get away with leaving the dedication as it is, although perhaps you might be better off replacing the comma with a colon to remove any lingering doubt.  If the meaning is (b), then adding an extra comma before the word "and" will resolve the ambiguity:

To my children, Anne, and Peter

(Note to grammar geeks: the comma before the "and" in a list is known as a serial comma.)  I personally think that if (b) is the meaning you're after, then rewriting the dedication as To Anne, Peter and my children would be an even better option, as it renders the text completely unambiguous even to people who wouldn't know a serial comma if it bit them on the leg!

Another (probably apocryphal) example is the English professor who wrote the words woman without her man is a savage on the board and asked his students to insert the correct punctuation.  The men wrote: Woman, without her man, is a savage.  The women wrote: Woman: without her, man is a savage.

The uses of ambiguity

As we've already seen, ambiguity is great source of humour, both unintentional and intentional. Here are some intentional examples from the annals of comedy:

  • One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know. Groucho Marx
  • I'm a wonderful housekeeper. Every time I get divorced, I keep the house. Zsa Zsa Gabor
  • I still miss my ex-husband. But my aim is improving. Anon
  • I like children - fried. W C Fields
  • This is not a novel to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force.  Dorothy Parker

However, you don’t have to be a comedian to find that ambiguity can be a useful tool. It can also be pressed into service when you're asked for answers to awkward questions. An American college professor called Robert Thornton came up with a Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations (or LIAR for short), a list of ambiguous references to be used when put in the awkward position of having to be a referee for someone whose personality/skills leave a lot to be desired. For example:

  • Her input was always critical - She was a constant complainer
  • I can assure you that no person would be better for the job - He/she is so useless that you'd actually be better off leaving the vacancy unfilled
  • She works without direction - She's totally disorganised
  • No salary would be too much for him - He isn't worth any salary
  • You would be lucky to get this man to work for you - because he'd spend all day drinking coffee and using Facebook
  • He's a man of many convictions - He has a colourful criminal past.

So you'll see that ambiguity isn't just for comedians. Sometimes it can also prevent you from being sued!

© Empress Felicity August 2010


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    • EmpressFelicity profile image

      EmpressFelicity 7 years ago from Kent, England, UK

      Thank you Website Examiner, Bailey Bear and Toknowinfo for your comments! Yes, I too am one of those people who almost never thinks of "non-insulting" ways to tell the truth - at least not until after I've blurted out something far more direct lol. That's why email is such a great medium for me - it allows a certain amount of "thinking time", during which it's possible to edit down one's comments and make them less abrasive.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 7 years ago

      Thanks for a great hub that explains so much. You really got me thinking about ambiguity. Clearly written hub. Rated up and useful.

    • profile image

      Baileybear 7 years ago

      I like the used of ambiguity for humour, as you illustrated. I try to be clear, but I know I can ramble & probably break all the grammar rules. And it can be useful for telling the truth without being too insulting - if only I could think of those types of things to say!

    • profile image

      Website Examiner 7 years ago

      You have written eloquently on a not-too-approachable subject. As a writer and editor, I tend to rewrite quite a bit, and certainly avoiding ambiguity is one of the reasons. I wasn't aware of the great examples you have included and interpreted so well.

    • EmpressFelicity profile image

      EmpressFelicity 7 years ago from Kent, England, UK

      Hi Brian and Elayne, thanks for dropping in! (Yes, your comma is definitely in the right place LOL.)

    • elayne001 profile image

      Elayne 7 years ago from Rocky Mountains

      That was very educational as well as giving me a chuckle. Thanks for a great hub.

    • BRIAN SLATER profile image

      Brian Slater 7 years ago from England

      Empress- i now know why i read your hubs, you educate me and make me laugh at the same time.(is my comma in the right place?)