Guide to Literary Terms

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Ambiguity

Ambiguity - a doubtfulness or uncertainty about the intention or meaning of something. It usually refers to a statement that is subject to more than one interpretation. The term is used for words that suggest two or more appropriate meanings or that convey both a basic meaning and complex overtones of that meaning. Sometimes, authors make deliberate choices of words that simultaneously cause several different streams of thought in the reader’s mind. Ambiguity is also used to mean confusion between the denotation and connotation of a literary work. A simple kind of ambiguity is the use of homophones to promote a multiplicity of possible meanings. In Sonnet 135, Shakespeare puns on the word “Will,” invoking its sense as one’s wish, as well as its sense as a nickname for “William”: “whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will” (line 1).

The word is derived from the Latin ambiguus, which means “doubtful,” and was formed from ambigere—a combination of amb, meaning “both ways,” and agere, meaning “drive.”

see: allusion, connotation