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English 11-12

Literary Techniques: Ambiguity

Are you uncertain about ambiguity? You're not alone! Int this article, we clear up how to identify and write about different types of ambiguity!

Do you find it difficult to identify ambiguity in a text and use it in your textual analysis? This article will help you understand what ambiguity is and how to write about it.

In this article, we’ll discuss,


Literary Techniques – Ambiguity

Ambiguity can exist in several ways in a literary text. In this article, we will break down the different versions of ambiguity and think about how they can create meaning.

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What is ambiguity?

Ambiguity falls into several different categories:

  • Syntactic ambiguity – Ambiguous statements that may have multiple meanings due to the punctuation of the sentence
  • Semantic ambiguity – Ambiguous statements that could have multiple meanings because of the choice of words
  • Narrative ambiguity – Ambiguity surrounding the plot or characters and their motives
  • Conceptual Ambiguity – Ambiguity about the concepts, themes, or ideas in the text

We’ll start with ambiguity at the level of the sentence and move into more complex aspects of ambiguity from there!

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Types of Ambiguity

We’ll start with ambiguity at the level of the sentence and move into more complex aspects of ambiguity from there!

Syntactic Ambiguity

Ambiguity (pronounced ‘am-bih-GYOO-ih-tee’) is a word, phrase, statement, or idea that can be understood in more than one way.

Syntactic ambiguity occurs when the sentence or statement has ambiguous punctuation or syntactic structure (the ordering of parts of the sentence).

Have you ever read a sentence and found that there are two possible meanings?

For example, take the sentence:

I rode a white horse in pink pyjamas.

Does this mean:

  1. The persona was wearing pink pyjamas when they rode the horse, or
  2. The horse was wearing the pink pyjamas?

Sometimes ambiguity makes things confusing in unwanted ways. The above sentence includes what we call syntactic ambiguity because the syntax or structure of the sentence makes it ambiguous. It reads like a mistake and needs to be rephrased to create a clearer meaning.

One way of removing ambiguity in the above sentence would be to rewrite it as:

Wearing pink pyjamas, I rode a white horse.

Sometimes, however, writers include ambiguity on purpose. This is the kind of ambiguity that we consider a literary technique, not just a mistake. We will come back to why authors would want to use ambiguity, but let’s first think about how to identify it.

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Semantic Ambiguity

Semantic ambiguity is when the content of a sentence is ambiguity due to the words having multiple senses or meanings and the particular intention behind the sentence is not made apparent.

The example below comes from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. At this moment in the play, Hamlet’s recently deceased father has appeared as a ghost, telling Hamlet he was murdered. Hamlet asks his father to give him more details, so that he can properly revenge his father’s death.

Haste me to know ‘t, that I, with wings as swift As meditation or the thoughts of love, May sweep to my revenge.

As you can see, the phrase ‘as swift as meditation’ is a simile! However, the meaning of this simile is ambiguous.

A, now rare, meaning for the word ‘meditation’ that was used in Shakespeare’s time is ‘thought’. So, one way of interpreting what Hamlet is saying here is that his revenge will be as fast as thought.

Our thoughts move very quickly in our mind: it doesn’t take long for you to look at a cake (or other food of your liking) and think that you want to eat it. Therefore, what Hamlet probably intends to say is that he will get his revenge quickly.

However, another way to interpret the word ‘meditation’ is ‘serious and sustained reflection or mental contemplation’. This kind of meditation is typically slow and considered. It takes a long time to meditate upon a difficult intellectual problem: sometimes years! If we use this definition of ‘meditation’ then the statement means the opposite of what we said in the previous paragraph.

If Hamlet’s revenge is ‘as swift as meditation’, but meditation is slow, then Hamlet’s revenge will be slow.

Is Hamlet’s revenge fast or slow? Which meaning is correct? This question is at the heart of ambiguity.

The very fact that there is more than one meaning tells us that there is no single correct answer. It’s both. It’s that uncomfortable feeling of not having a single answer that makes ambiguity what it is. We have to sit with the many possible meanings in the one statement.

Let’s pause here, and consider the reason why composers might utilise ambiguity.


Why create ambiguity?

If this feeling of uncertainty created by ambiguity is so annoying, why do writers create it?

One way to answer this is to say that life is not straight forward: it contains much ambiguity.

For example, sometimes our feelings for our friends and family are not simple.

Do you always feel total, unconditional love for your friends and family, or do they sometimes annoy you or cause you distress? Do you always hate school or are there times that you find it enjoyable?

Usually our feelings towards things in our lives vary and change, and that shows us that there’s ambiguity in our experience of the world. If our feelings were the same all the time, this would make life simplistic and boring. We are challenged by ambiguity, and in embracing that ambiguity we become complex people.

Therefore, in creating ambiguity, authors can highlight the complexities in life. In the Hamlet example, Hamlet probably meant to say his revenge would be swift. However, Shakespeare has included another meaning to suggest that Hamlet’s revenge might not be as swift as he thinks. As we see in the rest of the play, Hamlet takes a long time to actually enact his revenge. He’s afraid of killing the man who murdered his father (his Uncle, it turns out) and delays his revenge until the very end of the play.

One of the reasons why it takes him so long is that he spends a lot of time overthinking the problem of whether or not kill his Uncle. He applies ‘serious and sustained reflection or mental contemplation’ to this problem – in other words, meditation. So, when we hear Hamlet say his revenge will be ‘as swift as meditation’, if we know what Hamlet is like, we’ll know that it’s actually going to take him a long time to enact his revenge.

It could be that Shakespeare has used this simile in an ironic way, to make a comment on how incapable of action Hamlet really is.

Note: this specific kind of ambiguity, where there are multiple meanings to a word (rather than ambiguity created due to sentence structure, as we saw earlier), is called semantic ambiguity.

We can also use the word polysemy to describe this use of language.

Additionally, we might consider Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘meditation’ a pun – because it has a double meaning. But what does this example show us about the complexities of life?

Hamlet may want revenge but that doesn’t mean he’ll take it. Sometimes we want something but for some reason we don’t always take it – even when we can. Sometimes, even if we think this thing is best for us, we can be full of doubts, uncertainties, and insecurities about whether we really should take it. We may say we want one thing, but we may act in ways that suggest otherwise. Sometimes we may think we want something, but another unconscious part of us doesn’t. We are contradictory, complex people full of ambiguous thoughts, desires, and motivations.

Shakespeare’s use of ambiguity in the phrase ‘as swift as meditation’ therefore highlights those ambiguous, contradictory thoughts and feelings within the Hamlet character.

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Narrative Ambiguity

Narrative ambiguity is when aspects of the plot-line are not clear. For example, a character may have unclear motives or the relationship between a pair of characters could be ambiguous.

Before we start exploring how to write about ambiguity, let’s identify two more significant forms of ambiguity that you can use in your own analyses. To do this, we will look at a poem by the American poet Robert Frost called ‘Mending Wall’.

‘Mending Wall’ is about two neighbours whose rural properties are divided by a wall. Over time, the wall breaks apart and the neighbours work together to fix it. In the process, however, the persona asks why they need to keep a wall between them at all. The trees on their properties (apple trees on one side and pine on the other) are not going anywhere, and there are no cows to stray into each other’s land.

When the persona poses this question to their neighbour, the neighbour simply says, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’.

The poem starts,

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

And later

The gaps I mean, 
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.

What is the ‘something’ that brings the wall down? Presumably, it is the forces of nature: wind, rain, hail, sun, animals. But later on, the persona says:

‘…Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.

Elves? But not exactly? What on earth is Frost talking about?

In the course of the poem, what the persona thinks is bringing down the wall is never technically clarified. We can guess and say it’s nature, and perhaps some spiritual or mythical imagining of nature that comes in the form of something like elves. But we can never be entirely sure.

This kind of ambiguity isn’t about two meanings to a word or phrase, it is about ambiguity behind the details of the story and its plot. We can call this narrative ambiguity.

Sometimes we see this ambiguity in novels when the author leaves us hanging and we don’t quite know what happened to the protagonist at the end.

Conceptual Ambiguity

Conceptual ambiguity refers to high order ambiguity about the meaning of key themes or ideas in the text.

The ambiguity in ‘Mending Wall’ is extended to what we might call conceptual ambiguity: ambiguity related to the concepts or ideas in the poem.

By the end of the poem, it might be that Frost isn’t talking about physical walls at all. Perhaps this poem is really about metaphorical walls between people: the invisible emotional walls or barriers we put between ourselves and others. By the end of the poem, when the neighbour says, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’, we don’t know whether Frost agrees with this sentiment or not.

It’s just left there for us to contemplate.

Does Frost think there should be a wall or that there shouldn’t? When are ‘walls’ between people appropriate and when are they not? We don’t know.

The concepts or ideas he’s trying to convey about human relationships are not simply answered: they are ambiguous in nature.

Again, this is part of the richness of this poem. It highlights that human relationship are complicated and shaped by many changing and contradictory forces. We sometimes put up walls between ourselves and others without knowing why, and sometimes there are seemingly magical or mystical ways in which the ‘walls’ between people can suddenly disappear. That strange, inexplicable ambiguity in our feelings and relationships towards people is what makes our lives interesting and rich – and this may be what Frost is trying to draw attention to in this poem.


How to analyse ambiguity – step-by-step

Now that we know what ambiguity is, and we’ve talked about why writers might use it, we will explore how to write about it analytically.

When writing textual analysis, it’s best to provide the following things:

  1. A technique
  2. An example (or quotation)
  3. An explanation of the effect of the technique, and
  4. A link to an argument about the poem

Let’s work with the ambiguity in the quote: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

Step 1. Identify the Technique

The technique, as we know, is ambiguity. What is the ‘something’? It could be many things, but we don’t know for sure.


Step 2. Find your quotation

Now, when we explain what the effect of this technique is, we want to make sure that we link the effect to an argument about the poem. Let’s assume that our overall argument about the poem is:

‘Mending Wall’ highlights the majesty of nature’

As you can see, this is a different argument to the one we were making earlier, but that’s ok. There are several arguments that can be made about the poem.


Steps 3 & 4. Explain the technique, connect to argument

If the above sentence is our overall position on the poem, we want to connect the effect of the ambiguity in our chosen example to this argument. We might do it like this:


Frost uses ambiguity (technique) in, ‘[s]omething there is that doesn’t love a wall’ (example), as the ‘something’ that brings down the man-made wall is never clearly identified. This creates a certain mystery around the working of nature (effect). This mystery, in turn, evokes in the reader a sense of awe and majesty associated with the natural world (link).

It wouldn’t make sense to talk about an effect of ambiguity that has nothing to do with the argument we are trying to make. For example:


Frost uses ambiguity (technique) in, ‘[s]omething there is that doesn’t love a wall’ (example), as the ‘something’ that brings down the man-made wall is never clearly identified. This makes the reader confused about what is happening in the poem (effect).


What’s the difference between the responses?

In example (b), the effect is not clearly linked to the overall argument about the poem. You need to make sure that you choose a technique and example that is relevant to your argument about the poem. Don’t choose a random example of alliteration in ‘Mending Wall’, if you don’t think it has anything to do with your argument about ‘the majesty of nature’. Once you have chosen an appropriate technique, you need to logically connect the effect of that technique to the argument you are making.


How do I get better at analysing ambiguity?

A good way to improve on analysing techniques such as ambiguity is to practice writing about them on your own. You can use the example structure given in this article to write pieces of textual analysis on whatever texts you are reading. Try to find an example of ambiguity and explain the effect of it on you as a reader. Try to link that effect to your own argument about what you think the text is trying to express. Every small bit of practice on your writing goes a long way!


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Written by Timothy Steains

Dr Timothy Kazuo Steains has been a teacher at Matrix since 2013. He has written and contributed to various textbooks for Matrix students. He is also a lecturer in Gender and Cultural studies and researches in the areas of Asian Australian studies, and boys studies.


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