The third of three types of ambiguity: imaginary ambiguity

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. 

Emphatic Ambiguity

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. 

Suggestive Ambiguity

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. 

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The second of three types of ambiguity: actual ambiguity

Actual ambiguity refers to ambiguity that occurs in the act of speaking.  It arises when a word or phrase, without variation either in itself or in the way the word is put forward, has different meanings.  The statement does not contain adequate information to resolve the ambiguity, resulting in a number of legitimate interpretations.  Two distinct types of ambiguity are categorised as actual ambiguity:  pragmatic and extraneous. 

Pragmatic Ambiguity

Pragmatic ambiguity arises when the statement is not specific, and the context does not provide the information needed to clarify the statement.  Information is missing, and must be inferred.  An example of pragmatic ambiguity is the story of King Croesus and the Oracle of Delphi (adapted from Copi and Cohen 1990):

"King Croesus consulted the Oracle of Delphi before warring with Cyrus of Persia.  The Oracle replied that, "If Croesus went to war with Cyrus, he would destroy a mighty kingdom".  Delighted, Croesus attacked Persia, and Croesus’ army and kingdom were crushed.  Croesus complained bitterly to the Oracle’s priests, who replied that the Oracle had been entirely right.  By going to war with Persia, Croesus had destroyed a mighty kingdom – his own."

Pragmatic ambiguity arises when the statement is not specific, and the context does not provide the information needed to clarify the statement (Walton 1996).  The information necessary to clearly understand the message is omitted.  Due to the need to infer the missing information, pragmatically ambiguous statements have multiple possible interpretations (Walton 1996).  Croesus interpreted the Oracle’s statement as indicating his success in battle – the response he desired.  As noted by Hamblin (1970), Croesus’ logical response to the oracular reply would have been to immediately ask the Oracle, "Which kingdom?"  Further information is needed to resolve pragmatic ambiguity. 

In the case of an information request, pragmatic ambiguity exists in the request for "A report of all the clients for a department."  The ambiguity is that the request does not refer to a specific department.  The end user could legitimately prepare a report for any department.  Further information is needed to resolve this actual ambiguity in this case.

Extraneous Ambiguity

In contrast to pragmatic ambiguity, in which information necessary to clearly understand the message is omitted, extraneous ambiguity arises from an excess of information.  Clearer communication arises where the minimally sufficient words needed to convey the message of the statement are used (Fowler and Aaron 1998).  Where more words are used than necessary, or where unnecessary detail is provided in the communication that is not part of the message, ambiguity arises.  The excess detail obscures the essential message and contributes to different emphases or interpretations.

The use of passive voice, vacuous words, or the repetition of phrases with the same meaning all contribute to lack of clarity (Fowler and Aaron 1998).  The use of clichés and the over-use of figures of speech add volume to the statement, but add little or no meaning.  Pretentious and indirect writing also adds to the bulk of the statement, but without adding meaning.  Fowler and Aaron (1998) provide the following comparative example:

  • Pretentious:    To perpetuate our endeavour of providing funds for our elderly citizens as we do at the present moment, we will face the exigency of enhanced contributions from all our citizens.
  • Revised:    We cannot continue to fund Social Security and Medicare for the elderly unless we raise taxes. 

The extra volume contributes to vagueness in the first statement, and adds to the multiplicity of legitimate interpretations of the statement.  The first statement exhibits extraneous ambiguity.  The second statement communicates forcefully and concisely. 

An example of extraneous ambiguity in an information request is "A report of all clients (and their names and addresses only) for the Tax and Business Services department.  Some of those clients are our biggest earners, you know".  The last sentence is extraneous, and contains detail that is redundant, uninformative, or misleading relative to the fundamental message.  In information theoretic terms, extraneous ambiguity is "noise" in the communication (Axley 1984; Eisenberg and Phillips 1991; Severin and Tankard 1997). 

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The first of three types of ambiguity: potential ambiguity

Again, this is lifted from my thesis which looks unlikely to ever see the light of day unless I take it off the shelves in BEL library at UQ.

Potential ambiguity arises when a term or a sentence is ambiguous in and of itself, for example, before its use in the context of a sentence or paragraph.  Three types of ambiguity are categorised as potential ambiguity:  lexical, syntactical, and inflective. 

Lexical Ambiguity

Lexical ambiguity is the most commonly known form of ambiguity (Reilly 1991; Walton 1996).  It occurs when words have more than one meaning as commonly defined and understood.  Considerable potential ambiguity arises when a word with various meanings is used in a statement of information request.  For example, "bank" may variously mean the "bank" of a river (noun), to "bank" as related to aeroplane or a roller-coaster (verb), a savings "bank" (noun), to "bank" money (verb), or a "bank" of computer terminals (noun) (Turner 1987).  Lexical ambiguity is often reduced or mitigated by the context of the sentence. 

In the case of an information request, lexical ambiguity exists in the statement "A report of our clients for our marketing brochure mail-out".  The word "report" may have several meanings, independent of its context.  A gunshot report may echo across the hillside.  A student can report to the lecturer.  A heavy report can be dropped on the foot.  Although the context may make the meaning clear, the lexical ambiguity contributes to the overall ambiguity of the statement and increases cognitive effort. 

Syntactical Ambiguity

Syntactical ambiguity is a structural or grammatical ambiguity of a whole sentence that occurs in a sub-part of a sentence (Reilly 1991; Walton 1996).  Syntactical ambiguity is a grammatical construct, and results from the difficulty of applying universal grammatical laws to sentence structure.  An example of syntactical ambiguity is "Bob hit the man with the stick".  This phrasing is unclear as to whether a man was hit with a stick, or whether a man with a stick was struck by Bob.  The context can substantially reduce syntactical ambiguity.  For example, knowing that either Bob, or the man, but not both, had a stick resolves the syntactical ambiguity. 

Comparing the phrase "Bob hit the man with the stick" to the analogous "Bob hit the man with the scar" provides some insights.  As a scar is little suited to physical, violent use, the latter formulation clearly conveys that the man with the scar was struck by Bob (Kooij 1971).

In the case of an information request, syntactical ambiguity exists in the request "A report of poor-paying clients and client managers.  Determine their effect on our profitability for the last twelve months."  The request is syntactically ambiguous because the end user can interpret "their" to mean the poor paying clients, the client managers, or both.  Although the context may reduce or negate the ambiguity, syntactically the request is ambiguous.

Inflective Ambiguity

As Walton (1996) notes, inflective ambiguity is a composite ambiguity, containing elements of both lexical and syntactical ambiguity.  Like syntactical ambiguity, inflective ambiguity is grammatical in nature.  Inflection arises where a word is used more than once in a sentence or paragraph, but with different meanings each time (Walton 1996).  An example of inflective ambiguity is to use the word "scheme" with two different meanings in the fallacious argument, "Bob has devised a scheme to save costs by recycling paper.  Therefore, Bob is a schemer, and should not be trusted" (Ryle 1971; Walton 1996).  

In the case of an information request, inflective ambiguity exists in the example, "A report showing the product of our marketing campaign for our accounting software product".  Ambiguity derives from using the word "product" in two different senses in the one statement (Walton 1996; Fowler and Aaron 1998). 

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The nature of ambiguity

The following is an excerpt from my thesis, written in 2000. 

Ambiguity is an inherent property of all natural languages, including English (Jespersen 1922; Williamson 1994). Absolute precision of a language is pragmatically undesirable, because the language is unable to adapt to new concepts (Williamson 1994). The communication needed to ensure effective and efficient report production, however, requires complete clarity. Hence, a tension exists between the natural language’s need for flexibility in the long term and the need for precision in the short term. Natural language is at once both dysfunctional and poorly adapted to the functions language needs to perform, yet flexible and broad-based such that it is useable in practice (Chomsky 1990).

Interest in linguistic ambiguity has an extensive history, and has been recognised as a separate branch of study since at least Aristotle’s time (Kooij 1971). Aristotle noted that language must be ambiguous, as a language has limited words but an infinite number of things and concepts to which those words must apply (Kooij 1971).

Russell (1923) recognised that all natural languages are vague and ambiguous. Excluding the realm of mathematical symbolism, constructing completely unambiguous expressions is not possible with the syntax and vocabulary tools available within natural languages (Williamson 1994). To endure and survive, language requires the flexibility to communicate new concepts. Ambiguity necessarily derives from the flexibility of natural language.

Kooij (1971) states that ambiguity arises where a sentence can be interpreted in more than one way. Similarly, Walton (1996) considers a sentence or statement to be more ambiguous as the number of legitimate interpretations of the sentence (or paragraph) increase. Ambiguity implies multiplicity of meaning (Walton 1996).

In classical analysis, the multiplex (Latin for “multiple meaning”) categorisation of Alexander of Aphrodisius (Hamblin 1970) suggests a basis for the identification of categories of ambiguity. In classical literature, Alexander of Aphrodisius identified three categories of ambiguity: potential, actual, and imaginary. Walton (1996) adapts this classical multiplex categorisation to his identified types of ambiguity.

Walton (1996) identifies six classical types of ambiguity in natural language: lexical, syntactical, inflective, pragmatic, emphatic, and suggestive. In addition to Walton’s (1996) taxonomy, extraneous information and noise in the communication can also be a source of ambiguity. Extraneous ambiguity arises where the communication is not parsimonious, or the communication includes information that is not directly relevant to the message being communicated (Fowler and Aaron 1998). Extraneous ambiguity is an actual ambiguity within the Walton (1996) taxonomy.

Each ambiguity type can be independently present within the communication. Walton’s (1996) modified taxonomy and model of ambiguity is presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1
Types of Ambiguity (adapted from Walton 1996)

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Professional Services Firms and Technology

I have been working for professional service firms since 1997 (nearly 9 years!), and I recall sitting in a meeting with the national board of a former employer – a national accounting firm – in 1997 when the topic of email came up.  Most didn’t understand it, most thought it could be an expensive exercise and ‘anyway, clients pick up the phones to talk to me, they don’t email me’.  A reasonably rational response in 1997, but in 2006, particularly as Generation X and Y take over from the baby boomers, email is becoming a preferred medium of communication.

Email is still a particularly dangerous form of communication when communicating with clients – confusion can reign supreme and ambiguity can become the order of the day if you are not careful, and I now have a policy of making a phone call before sending an email for that reason (however, policies were made to be broken, I have found!).  However, clients do expect email communications fairly instantaneously, which is why I found Ross Dawson’s Blog‘s entry on ‘The Seven Mega-Trends of Professional Services‘ particularly interesting.  I can only concur with most of the comments made regarding professional services firms in terms of client sophistication, transparency, governance, commoditisation, and so on.

What is also interesting to me is that this is a white paper that Ross Dawson wrote for Epicor, which is business software we recently recommended to a client as a management system for a professional services firm.  Much to my surprise, in many respects, given that it wasn’t a dedicated practice management system (like, say, Solution6/MYOB, APS, CMS Open, or Keystone), it met all our criteria (proven capability, functionality, low-risk) for the client in that circumstance.

Serendipity drives the world.