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Saturday, August 28, 2021

Ambiguity - Literary terms

Literary terms,Ambiguity,I. A. Richards

Literary terms - Ambiguity:  

Double or even multiple meanings. Unintentional ambiguity is considered a defect in scientific writing and wherever clarity is prized, as in the following telegram:

Ship sails today.

Intentional ambiguity in the form of a PUN, or play on words, is a source of HUMOR much used by stand-up comics and writers of DIALOGUE for situation COMEDIES:

“Your cousin is a well-digger?”

“Yes, he really gets to the bottom of things.”

The term ambiguity has also been applied to the richness of association valued in POETRY. Critic I. A. Richards pointed out in Practical Criticism that ambiguity is a natural characteristic of language that becomes heightened in poetry, partly because the language of poetry is compressed. Wrote Richards,

A word...can equally and simultaneously represent vastly different things. It can effect extraordinary combinations of feelings. A word is a point at which many different influences may cross or unite. Hence its dangers in prose discussions and its treacherousness for careless readers of poetry, but hence at the same time the peculiar quasi-magical sway of words in the hands of a master.

A classification of kinds of ambiguity was provided by another critic, William Empson. In his famous and controversial book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, Empson uses the following line from William Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 to illustrate his first and most useful category of ambiguity, "language simultaneously effective in several ways":

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold

According to Empson, shake simultaneously suggests that the boughs are shaking in the sense of shivering and in the sense of making a defiant gesture toward the cold, similar to shaking a fist.

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