It is important to say what you mean and mean what you say. It is also important to be clear on what you’re saying, and that’s where ambiguity often rears its ugly head. Ambiguity should not be confused with vagueness, a problem that obtains when there is no clear meaning to a statement. In other words, a vague statement is one that lacks meaning. In contrast, an ambiguous statement is one for which there’s more than one possible meaning. So in the case of vagueness we lack a clear meaning whereas in ambiguity we have too many meanings.
A case of ambiguity
Let’s start with an unambiguous definition of ambiguity. Here’s my definition: a statement that underdetermines its propositional content. In other words, a statement is ambiguous when it could mean two or more things. Linguistic ambiguity comes in two types: semantic and syntactic. Semantic ambiguity arises from the ambiguity of particular words, whereas syntactic ambiguity arises when the sentence can be interpreted as having more than one syntactic structure.
Here’s an example of an ambiguous statement. It comes from an ad I recently came across by a fellow looking to sell his motorcycle:
“I don’t want to sell this bike but my girlfriend’s pregnant and I have to get rid of her.”
The ambiguity of this statement is syntactic because it is not clear what the word “her” in the final clause is referring back to. Is it the bike or the girlfriend? Consequently, this statement could mean one of two things.
Meaning 1: I have to get rid of my bike because my girlfriend’s pregnant.
Meaning 2: I have to get rid of my girlfriend because she’s pregnant.
Statements tend to be embedded in a rich nexus of implied meanings or implicature. And both of these meanings have that rich implicature. Meaning 1 includes the implied meaning that having a baby costs money and the seller of the motorcycle needs to acquire that money to cover those costs. Meaning 2 includes the implied meaning that hiring a hitman costs money and the seller of the motorcycle needs to acquire that money to cover those costs. (Meaning 2 could also carry the implied meaning that the seller needs money to buy a weapon. Thus we have an example of nested ambiguity in which one of the possible propositions that a sentence could express includes its own ambiguous implied content.)
The ambiguity of ambiguity
Now here’s an interesting angle. Ambiguity is generally defined as a statement which allows for reasonable alternative interpretations. But would anybody reading the ad have a serious doubt about the intentions of the seller? Clearly not. It is technically possible that the seller was making a nonchalant psychopathic disclosure of murderous intention, but it ain’t remotely likely. Does that mean that this statement is not really ambiguous after all?
That doesn’t seen quite right. The statement still is ambiguous. So it would seem that we need to distinguish between really ambiguous statements and those that are like this example. With that in mind, I’ll make a distinction between genuine ambiguity and technical ambiguity. This motorcycle ad is technically ambiguous, but everybody really knows what the guy meant. What we really need to watch out for are statements that are not only technically ambiguous, but which are genuinely ambiguous. In other words, these are cases where it really is not clear what the individual meant.
Of course, if the statement was uttered in a different context (e.g. by one in a group of pathological bachelors intent on remaining single and unencumbered) then the statement would be technically ambiguous but with a different reasonable interpretation. Further, if you read the statement without any background context in which to fix the reasonable meaning then it would become genuinely ambiguous.
Finally, a few words about legitimate rape. By now you’ve probably heard the big debate over the comments of Missouri Representative Todd Akin over the question of “legitimate rape”. It all started on Sunday when Akin was asked in a television interview whether he would support abortion for a woman who had been raped. He replied:
“It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
There are several issues here. One is the policy issue, and here it must be said that if a person believes a developing fetus has an “inviolable right to life” as Mr. Akin does, then the fact that the fetus was conceived as the result of a crime would not provide legitimate ethical grounds to terminate that life. You can’t fault the guy for consistency.
If Akin had simply stated his position that he doesn’t believe in abortion even in cases of rape, and he had backed it up with some hard data on the statistical unlikelihood of pregnancy arising from rape, it is doubtful that most of us ever would have heard of his comments.
But he said “legitimate rape“. This statement evinces semantic ambiguity because it could mean something like “ethically justified rape” or it could mean “a genuine rape”. Clearly this is an example of technical ambiguity. Nobody who heard the interview thinks Akin was making a claim about rape being ethically justified. Nonetheless, the phrase “legitimate rape” has been picked up by the media who are clearly trading on this ambiguity to make the statement sound even more inflammatory than it was. For once it is decontextualized a technically ambiguous statement becomes a genuinely ambiguous one.
Consequently, one wonders how many people have not bothered to read more into the story than the headlines and thus now believe that Akin made some comments about rape being ethically justifiable. (Incidentally, such an interpretation is not beyond the bounds of plausiblity given the public discourse over the last few years on the link between female clothing/public behavior and sexual assault. See, for example, my discussion of the “Slut Walk” movement.)
Unfortunately for Akin, there are also problems with his actually intended meaning for a reference to “genuine rape” suggests that there are many cases were rape reports are not genuine. And that is only likely to inflame Akin’s critics all the more as a case of blaming the victim.