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When Should We Use The Word “Ambiguous” In A Sentence?

When Should We Use The Word “Ambiguous” In A Sentence?

There are a lot of words in the English language that may seem a bit ambiguous, including the word “ambiguous” itself. This is because these words are frequently used without giving them much thought. However, when you stop to think about this word do you actually know how to define it and properly use it in a sentence?

The word “ambiguous” means that something isn’t clear because there’s more than one meaning available for you to choose from. In other words, the exact meaning isn’t known since there can be two meanings. There are a lot of these types of words in the English language today like the word “fall.”

Ambiguous no yes

Definition of “Ambiguous”

When you say that a word or an expression is “ambiguous” you’re saying that there’s more than one way in which this word or expression can be understood. Someone may also use the word “ambiguous” when they’re trying to say that they’re “uncertain” about something.

Generally speaking, something is deemed “ambiguous” if a reader can’t clearly understand its intended meaning, the word isn’t precise, or more than one meaning is possible. This can happen when a word has more than one possible interpretation because then the meaning must be deduced by the content or via your own perspective.

For instance, what some people may call a “war” could possibly be seen as an “invasion” by someone else. When this happens some people will argue that certain viewpoints are being advocated for unless the author takes time to make a clear attribution. In other words, instead of saying “this is a war,” the writer should state that it’s viewed as a war. If they want to be completely neutral then they’ll need to mention and cite the other side as well.

When a word has a variety of different definitions it’ll be more problematic. This is because their individual definitions may not be clear so readers may not know what the author intended for the word to mean. Here it’s important to provide either an explanation or enough context so that the reader can determine for themselves what the author meant.

There are also times when wording can be “ambiguous” even though the words themselves aren’t. For instance, if someone doesn’t know that it’s common to explain an unfamiliar term by using “or” and placing a familiar synonym in parentheses, they may think that you’re trying to make a comparison.

Some of the other words that may be used instead of “ambiguous” include:

  • Equivocal
  • Vague
  • Doubtful
  • Enigmatical
  • Uncertain
  • Obscure
  • Unintelligible
  • Perplexing
  • Indistinct
  • Dubious

Having a better understanding of the definition of the word “ambiguous” will also help you to see that this word doesn’t mean:

  • Univocal
  • Obvious
  • Plain
  • Clear
  • Unambiguous
  • Indisputable
  • Necessary
  • Unmistakable
  • Unequivocal
  • Lucid

The Etymology of the Word “Ambiguous”

“Ambiguous” is an old word, dating back to the 1520s. It’s rooted in the Latin word “ambigere” which means “having a double meaning, shifting, changeable, doubtful.”

In a literal sense, the word “ambiguous” means “to wander, go about, go around.” However, in a figurative sense, it means “hesitate, waver, be in doubt.”

What Makes an “Ambiguous” Sentence

Oftentimes we’ll hear the word “ambiguous” used in reference to a sentence (e.g. an “ambiguous” sentence). This means that the sentence has two or more meanings which is confusing for the person who’s reading it. For example, take a look at this sentence: James was found guilty of keeping a protected animal in the Singleton Court after being charged with taking a python from the complainant’s property. Someone may complain that this sentence is “ambiguous” because it isn’t clear whether James was guilty of keeping the python in the Singleton Court or because he took it from the complainant’s property. A better way of saying this would be: In the Singleton Court, James was found guilty of removing a python from the complainant’s property.

To make a sentence less “ambiguous” you’ll want to make sure that people understand what a pronoun (e.g. it, they, he, she) is referring to. You’ll also want to do this when you use a determiner (e.g. that, this, those, these).

Ambiguous puzzle

The Word “Ambiguity”

“Ambiguity” is a noun that’s derived from the word “ambiguous.” As such, it is defined as the quality or state of being “ambiguous.” In other words, “ambiguity” is a noun and a concept that means that the item in question is open to several different interpretations. Some other ways of saying this is by using synonyms like cryptic, dark, enigmatic, equivocal, obscure, and vague. Each of these words means “not clearly understandable.”

When a sentence has “syntactic ambiguity” it means that this sentence has two or more different meanings. This is because of the sentence’s syntax (structure). Oftentimes this is caused by the unclear usage of a modifying expression (e.g. a prepositional phrase).

Types of “Ambiguity” in the English Language

There are a few different types of ambiguity that you should know about in the English language. Understanding the different types of ambiguity that exist will help you better understand the subject that’s being discussed. This is of special importance to those who are learning English as a second language.

Genuine Ambiguity

This happens whenever it’s possible for a sentence to have two or more legitimate meanings. While this doesn’t happen frequently, it’s important to be careful here, especially today when computers are being frequently used. Computer ambiguity can be a serious problem because computers can’t distinguish between meanings as easily as humans can and so they may ultimately make a serious mistake.

Lexical Ambiguity

Unfortunately, words can have more than one meaning. If a person isn’t careful to explain what they mean it’s quite possible for something to be taken completely out of context. It can be very confusing when this happens.

Syntactic Ambiguity

This type of ambiguity happens frequently in English because the language allows you to string together long series of nouns. Unfortunately, when this happens it’s easy to grow confused in regards to what’s being referenced. When this happens the noun itself is becoming “ambiguous” since the sentence could now be taken to mean several different things. This is just one of the many examples of why the English language can be so difficult for non-native speakers to learn and understand.

Semantic Ambiguity

Even after you’ve defined each of the individual words in a sentence there may still be two ways in which to interpret the meaning of the sentence. This happens when the relation of a meaning of a compound noun to its component has a variety of meanings.

An example of this is what’s known as a “compound noun.” A compound noun is a noun that’s composed of two or more words. Some examples of compound nouns include bus stop, football, breakfast, haircut, check-out, mother-in-law, or truckful.

These words are seen as being “ambiguous” because when they are taken separately the two words will have different meanings than when they’re used together in the form of a compound noun. For instance, take the word breakfast. It’s composed of two words: break (meaning to separate into pieces) and fast (moving at a high rate of speed) but when it’s used in the form of a compound noun it means “a meal that’s eaten at the start of the day.” Therefore you may say that the word “breakfast” is a bit “ambiguous” because it doesn’t mean what the two words mean when they’re taken independently of one another.

Anaphoric Ambiguity

This can happen quite frequently in a story. While an author may think that they’ve explained who they’re talking about when referring to someone whom they’ve previously mentioned, it’s possible for the reader to think of more than one person here and thus become confused.

Ambiguous man

Examples of the Word “Ambiguous” in a Sentence

Now that “ambiguous” isn’t such an “ambiguous” word for you any longer, you may want to start using it in some sentences of your own. Here are a few examples to help get you started:

  • His answer was quite ambiguous.
  • He answered my question with an ambiguous reply.
  • The language in the article is quite ambiguous.
  • The ambiguous agreement is open to many different interpretations.
  • So far they’ve been quite ambiguous.
  • The writer carelessly used pronouns in such a way that the writing was ambiguous.
  • The long-winded, poorly drafted manifesto is quite ambiguous in places.
  • When it comes to this issue the government has been quite ambiguous.
  • The report’s phrasing is actually somewhat ambiguous.
  • The agreement’s wording is a bit ambiguous.


When you say that something is “ambiguous” you’re saying that something is unclear. Whether this is because there’s more than one meaning available for you to choose from or the exact meaning isn’t known because there are two different meanings is something that may be somewhat ambiguous in itself. Unfortunately, there are a lot of these types of words found throughout the English language today but now that you know what “ambiguous” is and how to use it, hopefully, you won’t be confused about this one anymore.