Guide to Literary Terms

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Are the following newspaper headlines examples of "syntactic" or "semantic" ambiguity?

1-"Eye drops off shelf"

2-"Prostitutes appeal to pope"

3-"Kids make nutritious snacks"

4-"Stolen painting found by tree"

5-"Lung cancer in women mushrooms"

Quick answer:

Example 1: semantic Example 2: semantic Example 3: syntactic Example 4: syntactical

Expert Answers

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Semantic ambiguity occurs when there are different meanings or uses of a word, and syntactic ambiguity occurs when the arrangement of words creates ambiguity.

The first example is a case of semantic ambiguity because the meaning of "eye drops" may be that "eye" is a noun, and "drops" is a verb, or it may be that "eyedrops" is one word, which is a noun.

The second example is a semantic ambiguity, too, based on the two different meanings of the word "appeal."  One meaning is that one is asking someone for something, for example,"I appealed to her to make the necessary changes."  The other meaning of the word is that the subject is pleasing, for example, "Her looks appeal to me."

The third example is semantic because the word "make" has two different meanings, one being that one creates something, the other being that something "is" something.

The fourth example is a syntactical ambiguity because there is no confusion about the meaning of the words, but the arrangement of the words suggests that either a tree found the painting or that the painting was by the tree.

The fifth example is semantic because of the ambiguity of the word "mushrooms." This may be used as a noun, the things we eat, or it may be used as a verb, to indicate that something grows larger.

Generally speaking, the question you want to ask is if one or more of the words has more than one meaning or can be used as more than one part of speech. If this is the case, you are likely to have semantic ambiguity.  When you look at the order of the words and discover that another word order would clear up the ambiguity, you are likely to have syntactical ambiguity.

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