Ambiguous is an adjective which characterizes an object, an action or any phenomenon that does not have only one interpretation. Do not confuse the term with vague, because ambiguity has two or more clear interpretations, although, as a rule, only one of them is correct, while vague means not clearly expressed.
Homonyms cause lexical ambiguity or polysemy, which is a linguistic phenomenon when one language unit has several meanings. This problem could be solved by means of entering a multi-valued word into a correct context, which implies a certain meaning. Syntactic ambiguity or amphiboly arises within the context of one sentence due to an incorrect construction, even in the absence of ambiguous words. Amphiboly is local (only a certain part of the sentence contains ambiguity) and global (the whole sentence, in general, includes two or more variations for interpretation). Phonological ambiguity can occur while conversation because of homographs, but spelling helps to avoid such a problem.
The purpose of any information transmission is the clear rendering of facts, arguments or someone’s opinion to the recipient, so words and statements, which could have several interpretations, are a negative linguistic phenomenon. Different shades of word meaning sometimes also complicate information exchange. In 1987 the Logical Language Group started creating a new language called Lojban which would completely devoid of ambiguity, and in 1998 they succeeded with it. The language contains only unambiguous words; its spelling corresponds to phonetic and its grammar rules do not have any exceptions. Using Logban, speakers can share information without risking being misunderstood; as well, computers easily proceed Logban due to its clear structure and unambiguous grammar.
Even though information exchange has to be as clear as possible, paradoxically, in some cases speakers try to express themselves ambiguously. Most of all, this applies to political discourse and diplomacy. Public officials resort to political ambiguity to obtain maximum voters’ support and avoid criticism. Even if a statement causes sharp reaction of society, politicians can interpret it differently if it is equivocal, and thus avoid pressure. Equivocation may occur not only in political leaders’ affirmations but also in their general stance for getting the voters’ inclination. In diplomacy, experts sometimes have to resort to ambiguity to make a party or both parties sign an agreement. This kind of treaties is considered in two ways – if it is used to terminate a serious conflict, it is approved, but inclination leads to misunderstandings, thus, one conflict develops into another.
Ambiguity is applied in different kinds of art, especially in literature and cinematography. This phenomenon also occurs in journalism, but in this sphere, it is rather an accident than an intentionally used device. Writers use open endings in the plot of their novels or narrations to give readers opportunity to think about the possible deployment of events or interpret the conclusion suggested by the author. A bright example is a novel by Margaret Mitchell “Gone with the Wind.” Its ending became one of the most intriguing in literature and gave a basis for different assumptions and continuation of the story by other writers. The main characters are also endowed with ambiguous traits. Scarlett O’Hara became a real symbol of passion, invincible spirit and thirst for life, but Margaret Mitchell aimed to portrait her as a heartless and miscreant person. Rhett Butler is a positive character, though, from the very beginning, he confuses readers with his spoiled reputation and participation in illegal activities.
Ambiguity is also used in music and visual art. There are pictures where it is hard to understand who or what is the central figure; sometimes artists resort to more sophisticated image techniques of ambiguity when elements of one depicted object simultaneously create another so that you can see two images in one picture.