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 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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