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The prefix ambi (from the Latin—“both”) in semantics (the study of meanings) implies that a communication sent out one way is received in two (or more) senses, or can be interpreted in more than one way. It is a flaw in the communication string caused by the imprecision of language and the distance between sign (signifiers) and signified. A classic case is the vague antecedent: “The son was paid to take care of the father. He cashed his checks at the local bank.” Here the ambiguity is caused by use of gender pronouns that could refer to either the son or the father. Another semantic ambiguity, often found in advertising, is the hidden qualifier: “This product worked better than any of the others tested.” Here the ambiguity lies in the word “tested.” Ambiguity in semantics can be intentional or accidental. A sign that changes in context can be ambiguous when taken out of that context: “No Passing” is ambiguous as a highway sign unless the receiver knows the context—blind spot or school bus?
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