ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Uses of Ambiguity in Literature

Updated on June 11, 2015
Source

Let Me Tell You a Story

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Anne Shirley. She grew up on Prince Edward Island, and had a wicked temper. One day at school, one of her classmates was teasing her. This made her very upset. She took her writing slate, walked over to the classmate, and hit the slate over her classmate's head. It cracked. Anne was told to stand in front of the class until the end of the school day.

About the Story

This story is not mine. It was written by L. M. Montgomery in the 15th chapter of Anne of Green Gables. I just nicked it. (Thank goodness for public domain.)

Now that I've explained the story's origin, let me ask you a question: What did Anne Shirley crack? Did she crack the head, or did she crack the slate?

The answer, thankfully, is that she cracked her slate. Why do I bring this up? Because some of you may have thought the head was cracked. The story is ambiguous. It's the ambiguity that I want to talk about today.


Linguist Tom Scott Explains Ambiguity

Garden Path Sentences

  • The author write the novel was likely a best-seller.
  • I know the words to that song about the queen don't rhyme.
  • The old man the boat.
  • The man whistling tunes pianos.
  • The complex houses single and married soldiers and their families.

Walking up the Garden Path

Some linguists like finding sentences that are ambiguous. Some times ambiguities can be fixed with context, but other ones are still open to interpretation. These are called "Garden Path Sentences" because of the slang term "lead up the garden path", which means "to be mislead". Garden path sentences are usually unique novelties with no practical real world utility.

Garden path sentences rely on the fact that some English words can be multiple parts of speech. "Lay" can be a verb or a noun. Its location in a sentence determines if we think it's a noun or a verb. If we categorize is as a verb, but something else in the sentence indicates that is incorrect, we have to go back to reinterpret them. See how many garden path sentences you can reinterpret into something logical.

Buffalo Buffalo... Wait, What?

Perhaps you have seen this sentence before: "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo". It is a grammatically correct sentence in English. It is also entirely useless for conveying information. The sentence relies on slang terms and convenient place names. Rewriting the sentence to be understandable creates the sentence "Buffalo bother buffalo from Buffalo, New York that bother buffalo from Buffalo, Victoria." The line of "buffalos" are nothing more than a lexical joke.

The "buffalo" sentence is an extension of the ambiguity in a garden path sentence. The difference with the buffalo sentence is that the sentence has more ambiguities. There is almost nothing on which to base an interpretation.

Source

Ambiguity in the News

Headlines tend to use as few words as possible. This leaves them wide open to ambiguities. Sometimes the ambiguities are amusing, but other times they cause panic.

Funny headlines are often faked, but every once in a while a real one slips through an editor's fingers. The BBC released an article with the headline "Hicks to Return Home 'this Year'" on February 18, 2007. Hicks refers to David Hicks, not people living in the backwoods.

More serious mistakes can also occur. The Associated Press posted the headline "Dutch military plane carrying bodies from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash lands in Eindhoven." on Twitter. They meant the plane carrying bodies from the crash had landed in Eindhoven. Their correction was posted soon after the ambiguous tweet was released. The ambiguity combined with the real crash spread across the internet quickly, and one journalist must have gotten an embarrassing memo about the mistake.

Being Drunk

In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it is stated that using a particular device is like being drunk. "So it makes you dizzy and slur your words," you may be thinking. "That's no big deal."

You'd be mistaken. The trouble with being drunk can be discovered as soon as ask a glass of water.

Could Arthur C. Clarke have just said "this machine kills you in a very slow manner?" Certainly. The ambiguous phrase is more fun.

Source

Ambiguity

As you can see, ambiguity can pop up almost anywhere. The next time you're proofreading something, look for ambiguous phrases. Get someone else to check it. They could find ambiguities you missed. If you don't catch them, your work could be the joke to a punchline.

Are there any great cases of ambiguity you know? Please tell me in the comments.

Can you find ambiguity in the text of the article?

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      3 years ago from SW England

      Should it not be 'wrote' or 'writes' then? Sorry, I still don't get it!!

    • Molly Layton profile imageAUTHOR

      Molly Layton 

      3 years ago from Alberta

      No, annart, you're not being thick. The sentence means "The author said the novel was likely a best-seller."

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      3 years ago from SW England

      Great when they're done on purpose, embarrassing when not! It's certainly essential to proof-read.

      I can't for the life of me work out your garden path sentence 'The author write the novel was likely a best-seller.' Am I being thick?!

      Great hub with an important message, Molly.

      Ann

    • Molly Layton profile imageAUTHOR

      Molly Layton 

      3 years ago from Alberta

      Thank you for your lovely comment, Bill.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Certainly true and certainly a good suggestion. As long as I've been writing, I still do this from time to time.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)