An Analysis of the Causes of Ambiguity of English vocabulary

By Clyde Henry,2014-10-02 18:02
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An Analysis of the Causes of Ambiguity of English vocabulary

    An Analysis of the Causes of Ambiguity of English vocabulary

    Abstract: Ambiguity in English is a common phenomenon; it is very complicated for a variety of reasons. There’s no doubt that it is often used by us in our daily life, this paper's intention is to analyze how ambiguity may have its origins in lexis, and the basic means to avoid it. So as to help us to avoid possible misunderstanding caused by ambiguity in communication.

Key words: ambiguity, lexis, eliminate

1. Introduction

    In order to analyze the causes of the ambiguity of English vocabulary, we should understand what ambiguity is. When you are reading, you may find some sentences that can explain into two or more meanings according to different locale, and these sentences are called the ambiguous sentences. Kess, F. J. & Hoppe, A. R. once in the book, Ambiguity in Psycholinguistics said that

    “Upon careful consideration, one cannot but be amazed at the ubiquity of ambiguity in language.” (Kess, F. J. 1981; Hoppe, A. R.1966)For a word, ambiguity typically refers to an unclear choice between different definitions as may be found in a dictionary. A sentence may be ambiguous due to different ways of parsing the same sequence of words. For example: the watch ran fast. Weather it is “be fast” or “runs quickly”? It’s hard to judge. We can see that ambiguity in English is a very

    common phenomenon; we had better avoid it to reach better communication.

2. Lexical Ambiguity

    The lexical ambiguity of a word or phrase consists in its having more than one meaning in the language to which the word belongs. "Meaning" hereby refers to whatever should be captured by a good dictionary. Almost every word in a dictionary is ambiguous in the sense that is almost always has several different definitions.(赵元任.2006:655) According to it, lexical ambiguity can

    be divided into four situations: the causes of the polysemy or homonym; the causes of the change of meaning; the causes of the different uses between American and British English; the causes of the change of the word’s morphology.

2.1 The causes of ambiguity of the polysemy or homonym

    While different words may have the same or similar meaning, the same one word may have more than one meaning. This is what we call polysemy, and such a word is called a polysemy word.(何兆熊.2009:74) For example, the word “bachelor” means “single” as well as “the

    academic degree awarded for an undergraduate course or major that generally lasts for four years”.

    And Homonymy refers to the phenomenon that words having different meanings have the same form, it means different words ate identical in sound or spelling, or in both. (何兆熊.2009:75)

    For example, the word “bank” has several distinct lexical definitions, including “financial institution” and “edge of a river”.

    Sometimes, it is really difficult to distinct the causes of ambiguity the polysemy or the homonym. Let me take the sentence “The tourists passed the port at midnight” as an example, the word “port” has two meanings, it refers to “the harbor” as well as “the grape wine”. So it is hard to identify what the author means.

2.2 The causes of ambiguity of the change of the words’ meaning

    The words are the reflections of the objective things and the phenomena, when the objective word changes, the words change. Some words, the old meaning disappeared, creating a new meaning; some words, the old and new meaning exist side by side; some words, in a certain context, the transfer of meaning generated, the above conditions can cause the ambiguities of a sentence. For instance, the sentence “Please gives me a camel.” The original meaning of the word

    “camel” is a kind of animal, but here its meaning had transferred to a kind of cigarettes, and the

    name of that kind of cigarette is called “Camel”.

    2.3 The causes of ambiguity of the different uses between American and British English

    The ambiguity caused by the different uses between American and British English is very general. Such as the sentence “Tom, my neighbor, is an engineer.” The word “engineer” is ambiguous. In American English it means “technologist” and “engine driver”. While in British English, it only means the “technologist”. So it is hard to judge weather Tom is a technologist or

    an engine driver.

2.4 The causes of ambiguity of the change of the word’s morphology

    The morphology of English is represented by various forms, such as compounding, affixation, reduplication, morpheme internal changes and supplication and so on. Sometimes the different understanding of the word’s morphology may cause ambiguity. (陈新仁.2007:48)Take the word

    “unlockable” as an example. The word “unlockable” is a compound word, and compounding refers to a word-formation process in which words are formed by putting two or more words together. The new word thus is called a compound word, or simply a compound.(王东波.2007:136)

    So when the prefix un- combined with an adjective, a new adjective created, it means “not”. So in that case, the word unlockable refers to “not able to be locked”; when the prefix un- combined

    with a verb, a new verb created, it means “to do the reverse of”. And under that circumstance, the word unlockable refers to “able to be unlocked”.

    It is really easy for these compounding words to cause ambiguity, others like unnamable, unnumbered, and unlearned as well. In order to obtain the accuracy of language, we must be careful to use these words.

3. The elimination of lexical ambiguity

    In speaking or writing articles, we should avoid words that may arise from ambiguity, in order to eliminate it, we can add the qualifier or replaced it with the other word. For instance, the word “record” in the sentence “Bill broke the record” may cause ambiguity. To eliminate it, we

    can add the word “music” or “world” before “record”. Another example, the sentence “He is drawing a cart at the moment.” may cause ambiguity by the word “drawing”. So we can use another word “pulling” to replace “drawing” to eliminate the ambiguity.

4. Conclusion

    In this paper, I analyzed the causes of ambiguity of English vocabulary and put forward the basic methods to eliminate ambiguity. As we all know, the academic studies on language ambiguity has lasted a long time, because the research of ambiguity is not only has a positive significance on verbal communication, but also plays an important role in promoting the development of the theory of language. (王少杰.2006:124) Therefore, the depth study of the

    language ambiguity will help us to further reveal the inherent laws and mysteries of language. But

    the ambiguity of the English vocabulary is complex, I just pick up some items to analyze it. There are still many items to discuss and research.


    Kess, F. J. & Hoppe, A. R. Ambiguity in Psycholinguistics [M]. John Benjamins Pub Co., 1981.

     Kaplan, R. Cultural thought patterns in intercultural education [J]. Language Learning, 1966.

    赵元任. 赵元任语言学论文集,2006:655

    戴炜栋. 何兆熊. 新编简明英语语言学教程,2009:74-75.

    陈新仁. 英语语言学实用教程,2007:48-49.

    王东波. 英语语言学,2007:136

     王少杰. 英语歧义现象解析[J]. 通化师范学院学报,2006(1):124

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