Imaginary ambiguity occurs when a word with a fixed meaning seems to have a different one. Imaginary ambiguity derives from the optional interpretation that the recipient of the communication places on the information received. Two distinct types of ambiguity can be categorised as imaginary ambiguity: emphatic and suggestive.
The question of ambiguity deriving from accent, or emphasis in speaking, is an ancient one (Hamblin 1970). When a phrasing is rendered in the written form, the verbal emphasis may only be crudely indicated. Significant meaning and context is lost. Rescher (1964) provides the following example of emphatic ambiguity:
The intended meaning of the democratic credo "Men were created equal" can be altered by stressing the word "created" (implying "that’s how men started out, but they are no longer so").
The verbal emphasis creates an inference of meaning that is a legitimate interpretation of the phrasing. That is, changes in intonation can yield different interpretations.
In the case of an information request, emphatic ambiguity occurs in the example information request of "A report of our good clients". Ambiguity can derive from placing different emphases on the words. Depending on the context or on emphasis used, "good clients" could be legitimately interpreted to be clients that pay on time or clients that have the highest dollar-value sales. Indeed, with an ironic emphasis on the word "good", this request could be interpreted as a list of our worst clients – those that do not pay. The information necessary to resolve the ambiguity is often difficult to convey using only printed media.
Despite the apparent clarity of the sentence in question, suggestive ambiguity creates diverse implications and innuendos that can produce different implications (Walton 1996). Fischer (1970) provides an example:
The First Mate of a ship docked in China returned drunk from shore leave, and was unable to write up the ship’s log. The displeased Captain completed the log, adding, "The Mate was drunk all day". The next day, the now-sober Mate challenged the Captain over the entry, as it would reflect poorly on him. The Captain responded that the comment was true, and must stand. Whereupon the mate added to that day’s log, "The Captain was sober all day". In reply to the Captain’s challenge, the mate responded "the comment is true, and must stand" (derived from Trow 1905, pp 14-15).
The phrase "The Captain was sober all day" contains suggestive ambiguity. As a further example, the statement, "The President is now an honest man", is perfectly clear, and yet considerable innuendo exists. The fact that the President’s current honesty is worthy of comment implies that the President was previously dishonest.
Both phrases are perfectly clear, and, indeed, true. However, considerable innuendo exists. The fact that the Captain’s sobriety, or the President’s honesty, is singled out for special comment implies that such a state of affairs is unusual (Walton 1996). The statements are suggestively ambiguous.
In the case of an information request, an example of this ambiguity is, "A report of the clients of this accounting practice that have lodged taxation returns in the past five years in accordance with the requirements of the Australian Taxation Office". The request for information is quite clear. By definition, however, all taxation returns should be lodged in accordance with the Australian Taxation Office’s requirements. The extra phrase introduces suggestive ambiguity into the information request by suggesting that the report will not consist of all taxation clients, because some clients may not have complied with the Tax Office’s requirements.