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There is no secret that communicating without the instances of misunderstanding is hardly possible. Because of the numerous meanings which words have, the ambiguity of sentences when they are structured in a certain way, the existence of homonyms, homographs and homophones, etc., the communication process becomes rather hard.
Analyzed on too many levels, starting from the phonetic one (e.g., “kneed” and “need”) to the point of one considering the speech a metaphor (e.g., “The tiger was stuffed” meaning either that the tiger was hunted, killed and turned into a stuffed animal, or that the tiger had eaten much), the English language will never shake all the vagueness and ambiguity off, which makes the communication process all the more engaging.
Existence of Ambiguity
It is important to mention first that the question concerning the existence of a linguistic ambiguity still remains open. Indeed, if considering the problem from the viewpoint of language skills, one can possibly come to the conclusion that language ambiguity is the result of one’s inability to use language tools properly (e.g., confusing “nose” and “knows” in such a sentence as “Only Gerald knows”).
At first it might seem that the given argument is rather legitimate – one is most likely to meet a lot of problems when communicating with the help of a poorly learned language. However, there are sufficient proofs of the fact that language ambiguity exists (e.g., when the sentence “Panda eats shoots and leaves” is pronounced, one can understand the meaning as “Panda eats, shoots and leaves,” adding an extra comma to the sentence).
Moreover, there is a considerable amount of evidence to prove the aforementioned fact. As Piantadosi, Tili and Gibson explain, “Out of context, words have multiple senses and syntactic categories, requiring listeners to determine which meaning and part of speech was intended” (Piantadosi, Tili and Gibson 1). Therefore, “The fact that ambiguity occurs on so many linguistic levels suggests that a far-reaching principle is needed to explain its origins and persistence” (Piantadosi, Tili and Gibson 1).
Types of Ambiguity
Before going any further, it is necessary to mention the existing types of linguistic ambiguity. Despite the variety of ambiguities which a single sentence can produce, there are only four main types of a linguistic ambiguity, according to what Chapman’s research says (Chapman 21).
As it has been previously stated, there is a phonological ambiguity (bite – byte), the lexical one (“lands” as spaces vs. “lands” as a third person singular for “to land”), and two syntactic types of ambiguity (the one with verbs in finite forms, e.g., “He took a picture of them smiling”, in which it is not clear who was smiling, and the one in which the noun is derived from a verb, where it is not clear whether the action or the emotion/sensation is described e.g. “The taste of the dish”).
Impeding Knowledge Acquisition and Helping to Acquire It
It is also important to keep in mind that ambiguity can not only impede knowledge, but also contribute to its acquisition. To demonstrate the possibility of the latter, the following situation should be considered. For example, when saying, ‘The night was young,’ one creates a lexical ambiguity which impedes knowledge, since it can be heard and interpreted as ‘It has just got dark’ and ‘The knight was young,’ i.e., ‘the warrior was young’.
Thus, one can get incorrect information and fail to understand the rest of the story, thinking that it is supposed to be about knights, kings and Middle Ages. However, if one considers the ambiguous word as a time context, one will be able to learn specific information.
Hence, it can be considered that ambiguity is unavoidable. Once the lexical ambiguity is out of the way, the phonetic on can easily intrude the communication process. Finally, a certain phrase taken out of a context can be understood as a metaphor, which will also lead to a misunderstanding (Chapman 22). However, changing the sentence structure or picking a different word can easily fix the problem.
Chapman, Antony G. Humor and Laughter: Theory, Research and Applications. Piscataway NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2007. Print.
Piantadosi, Steven, Harry Tili and Edward Gibson n. d. The Communicative Function of Ambiguity in Language. PDF file. 4 January 2012. Web.