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What Is Ambiguity?


Kent Bach in his 'Rutledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy' entry
provides an analysis of what ambiguity is and what ambiguity is not. He argues
that ambiguity is a property of linguistic expressions, and that words and
sentences can have lexical or structural ambiguity. Ambiguity is not, for Bach,
things like vagueness, unclarity, inexplicitness, indexicality, homonymy, and
nonliterality. Ambiguity is when a word has multiple meanings (lexical
ambiguity) or when a phrase has different ways of interpreting its structure
(structural ambiguity). The charge that people are often ambiguous in their
language use, however, is a misnomer. The speaker is not being ambiguous, they
are being one of the other cases: inexplicit, vague, etc. For Bach, pragmatic
ambiguity is an oxymoron. Language use itself provides a way with which words
are disambiguated. Only in few cases are ambiguities deliberately employed in
communication, but that is the only time: when it is deliberate. Otherwise, the
ambiguous meanings are never intended. As a result, ambiguity cannot be a part
of speaker meaning, and is to be considered solely as a linguistic property of


The argument as I understand it is basically a modus tollens argument:
if ambiguity were a linguistic phenomenon, we would expect that linguistic
expressions or language use would be ambiguous. To Bach, the ambiguities that
might be pointed out as examples of why our language use is ambiguous are not
actually ambiguities at all. Rather, they are instances of nonambiguous word
use: inexplicitness, vagueness, etc. Pragmatic ambiguity only ever occurs when
the confusion brought on by ambiguity is intended by the speaker as part of
their own speaker meaning. They are thus employing either syntactic or
structural ambiguity to change their meaning. As a result, 'pragmatic ambiguity'
is not an actual thing to be considered, and so ambiguity is simply a property
of linguistic expressions and not of speaker meaning.


I disagree with Bach about status of pragmatic ambiguity. Let's assume
with Bach that words and phrases are ambiguous if they have multiple meanings.
When Bach is considering structural ambiguities, his examples are all instances
of utterances. This is, of course, expected, considering the nature of a
'structural ambiguity'. But all of these utterances are, presumably, things that
would be said. After all, we primarily use linguistic expressions for
communicating with one another. Is there a reason to suspect that context
supplies a sufficient framework for disambiguating sentences, or at least simply
offloading the ambiguity charge into another category? I contend that it does
not. As Bach himself concedes, psycholinguistic studies have demonstrated that
upon hearing an utterance, the hearer runs through possible meanings of the
sentences and 'rules out their irrelevant senses'. This at the very least
suggests that there are multiple meanings available to linguistic expressions
themselves, which is all Bach really contends is what ambiguity is.  Listeners
can also choose the wrong understanding of an utterance based on their
understanding of the context. The meaning of the phrase 'nothing is on TV
tonight' may depend on what the speaker means or the state of affairs of the
cable networks that evening - if you aren't aware that all of the cable
companies have somehow been shut down, you might be lead to believe that the
speaker simply doesn't want to watch any shows that are currently on television.
But that is not what he means. Listeners can choose the wrong phrase, and thus
be misled about the actual meaning - the speaker is being ambiguous. 

Argument - Reconstruction

P1: Ambiguity is a semantic phenomenon.

P2: If speaker meaning were ambiguous, then words and phrases within contexts of
language use would have unclear meanings. 

P3: Ambiguous language is rarely intended. 

P4: Ambiguous uses of language are not consciously entertained. 

5: Therefore, language use/speaker meaning does not have ambiguities.

C: Ambiguity does not relate to speaker meaning.

Argument - Comment

P1: Things (words, phrases) are ambiguous if they have more than one meaning.

P2: Psycholinguistic evidence shows that listeners rule out irrelevant meanings
when hearing expressions to determine the speaker’s meaning.

P3: Expressions can have more than one meaning.

C: Ambiguity is also a characteristic of speaker meaning.


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