Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Delicious Ambiguity

I found myself  questioning the use of  the word  "vagueness" in a conversation today. Perhaps what i should have used was "ambiguity".  So what to do? Google of course! 

"Though seemingly synonymous in common usage, vagueness and ambiguity are entirely different but very important problems in critical thinking.
  • A word or phrase is said to be ambiguous if it has at least two specific meanings that make sense in context.
  • A word or phrase is said to be vague if its meaning is not clear in context.
Consider this line from a help-wanted ad: "Three-year-old teacher needed for pre-school." Most people think this is funny, because the ad seems to be seeking a teacher that is three years old. But the phrase is ambiguous: the ad is actually seeking a teacher for three-year-old pre-schoolers.

The phrase is ambiguous because two specific and distinct meanings can be applied to it in the given context. (Notice, however, that the level of ambiguity is dependent on the terms involved. "English teacher needed for pre-school" would normally not be considered ambiguous, though in certain contexts it could be understood to be seeking a teacher from England. But how about "Vietnamese teacher needed for pre-school"?)

Vagueness, though, is a different problem. "Nurse needed for pre-school" is vague because there are many kinds of nurses, and the same job is certainly not open to them all: registered nurses, practical nurses, wet nurses, nannies, and so on. The problem is that the word "nurse" has many meanings, and so the ad's usage is vague.

The more details that are supplied, the less vague a phrase will be. "Registered nurse needed for pre-school" would be less vague, "Registered nurses with pediatric experience needed for pre-school" would be even less so. Notice that, for almost every word or phrase, you can probably imagine some situation in which it would be vague.

We can tolerate a certain level of vagueness in language, but it is the job of a critical thinker to minimize vagueness by ensuring the language used is appropriate for its context--that is, for its subject and its audience."

So based on that fantastic information, i vote for ambiguity. Vagueness is really fucking annoying. Ambiguity can be fun and compelling. Gilda has it right: ambiguity might be delicious. A bit like free falling. What have you got to lose?

At least now i won't be blowing it out my back passage when it comes to these two language gems. Rest easy knowing there are plenty of other things for me to cock up on though. 


skink said...


Monkeypants said...

very cool thanks skinkaroo - and slightly confusing. just how i like it :)