Select Page

One of the things I like about doing posts for the Drop in the Ocean on the BuddyUp Discord server is exploring words I don’t normally use. Ambiguity is one of those words.

So, how am I wandering ambiguously around? I expect to be wandering around in inexactness on the subject and some of what I will be writing will be open to more than one interpretation. In a nutshell, that is what ambiguity is.

Now I know. When I get up and wander into another room, and find myself wondering why I am there — it will be my ambiguity — not my forgetting what I’m doing. Now, that sounds so much nicer. I went to the kitchen today and my ambiguity left me wondering why I was there.

Ambiguity Not Good in Legal Documents

Ambiguity can have both good and bad connotations. What if I’m reading a legal document and the author has written clauses in a manner that allows more than one interpretation with each interpretation having a different outcome? That is ambiguity applied to the detriment of the person presenting the document and likely to the benefit of those receiving it.

Legal documents need to be precise and without ambiguity on how they can be interpreted. Those receiving them must know, without confusion, what is being communicated and expected. Lawsuits arise from ambiguity.

Ambiguity in Literature

Generally, in writing, ambiguity occurs through imprecise writing. Many of the funniest memes we come across contain ambiguity which can be taken either way. Like:

Let’s eat children

The sentence is ambiguous because it’s not clear if the writer wants the children to eat or to each the children. A comma after “eat” conveys precise meaning.

Ambiguity can also be used to deliberately leave writing up to interpretation. Let’s have a look at this passage:

The old guy yawned, scratched his ear and took a look around. From his spot on the comfy armchair he could survey his kingdom, well most of his kingdom There was the matter of not being able to see into the kitchen, unfortunate lack, considering it was almost his favourite room in the house.

The house was quiet except for the noise of some dishes being moved around in the kitchen. The servant was likely preparing some food. OH, food, time to go have a look. The old guy lifted himself up off the chair, stretched his aching body and padded off to the kitchen. With some luck, there would be a tasty treat to be found while he had himself a drink of water.

Checking the treat bowl as he passed, he sighed, nothing new in there. The treats were tasty enough, just not what he had in mind. Maybe he could toss a hint or two at the servant and get her to give him something a little more to amenable to his current mood. It would be so much easier if they spoke the same language.

Well, the water is cool and refreshing. Maybe he’d nibble at one or two of the treats in the bowl while he pondered how to communicate that he’d like something else to the servant. He wandered off out of the kitchen leaving the servant doing whatever she was doing apparently unaware he’d even been in the room.

The ambiguity in the passage is deliberate and will not become clear until later in the story. In this instance, the ambiguity, is part of the plot. What is the ambiguity? The only human in the passage is the servant. The old man is actually a cat.

Poetry is often written with a lot of ambiguity. The often terse references leaves the reading seeking the meaning in the poetry.

If you want your reader to know precisely what is happening in a story, you need to write without ambiguity. If you’d like to keep them guessing, write in ambiguity carefully and deliberately.

Now, without ambiguity, I shall head directly off to post this on my blog.