Ambiguity is a simple, straightforward literary device that can be created with an unclear modifier. Ambiguity, otherwise known as fallacy, appears when the reader can interpret the same word or text fragment in two or more ways. Such an interpretation can be a result either of unconventional grammar, syntax, or the use of polysemantic words.
Usually, this tool can be found when an author writes a sentence in such a way that the reader can't understand which adjective or verb relates to which noun. As a result, the fragment looks absurd, provoking an emotional reaction in the reader. The nature of this response depends on what context the phrase was used in and how well the ambiguity was executed.
The term itself is estimated to have appeared at the beginning of the 15th century and has its roots in the French and Latin languages. The original Latin word "ambiguitas," which meant "double meaning," was adopted as the French "ambiguite" before finding a place in the English vocabulary.
It's important not to confuse ambiguity as a literary device with homonyms. In the world of linguistics, homonyms are a pair of words that have similar sounding or spelling but don't share the same definition. An example of a homonym can be the word "mouth." It can stand either for a human mouth or a mouth of a river.
Although ambiguity isn't the same as a homonym, writers frequently use homonyms to create that ambiguous atmosphere. They also use similar linguistic means, such as homographs and homophones.
While this literary term is also similar to wordplay, they are separate entities. Wordplay is a form of a deliberate use of words and phrases that create a humorous effect for the reader. However, the typical play-on-words deals more with clever word manipulations than with unattached modifiers.
The ambiguity of a sentence or a phrase can be a result of a proper writing technique as well as a result of a bad one. Every time a sentence isn't left ambiguous on purpose, it's a sign of an inattentive approach both to the writing and the editing processes. This literary tool needs to be always used deliberately. Otherwise, instead of a secretive or comical effect, the reader will only experience confusion and disappointment.
An ambiguous sentence can provide a very comic relief to the reader when used in isolation. If paired with even a small portion of context, the humorous effect of the phrase diminishes. However, even if the surrounding sentences clarify the meaning of the fragment, it's common for the reader to misunderstand the message on the first reading.
Ambiguity can be found in all kinds of literary works, anecdotes, plays, movies, stand-up comedy, etc. A famous example of an ambiguous sentence can be found in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," where the Fellowship of the Ring had to solve a riddle to enter the mines of Moria. The way the riddle was written created confusion for the wizard, as he didn't understand whether the word "friend" related to himself or it was the password he had to pronounce. Thankfully, a more simple-minded hobbit came to his aid and found a way out of their conundrum.
An example of this tool used for a comic purpose can be found in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." At one point, Ford uses the ambiguous meaning of the word "drunk" (the verb "drink" in Past Tense, and the human state after consuming too much alcohol) to make a joke.
Ambiguity can also be created using indirect means. Authors achieve such a result by describing a situation where the reader can't understand the meaning of a scene upon reading it. For example, the protagonist returns home and finds a letter from his wife that has only four words written inside: "We have to talk." The reader can't know if it is going to be a pleasant or a tragic conversation until the writer gives context for this letter. This ambiguity keeps the reader motivated to continue reading further.
Ambiguity can oftentimes be found in lyric poems, elegies, sonnets, ballads, etc. Poets generously use this tool to add more layers to their works. A well-written ambiguous sentence can provoke more thoughts from the reader and leave him guessing about what the author really meant with a particular line. Thanks to ambiguity, not only a single phrase can create uncertainty but the entire poem can obtain a second meaning and possible interpretation.