In linguistics, we can model the mechanisms of ambiguity using Noam Chomsky's Transformational Generative Grammar.

          Surface structure
           /       |      \
          /        |       \
         /         |        \
        /          |         \
       1    ...    2    ...   3    ....    n 
                Deep Structures

The surface structure refers to the symbols used to convey a message. In this case, these symbols are words. These words act as referents to the intended meaning of the speaker. When a person hears these words, a part of their brain 'reverse engineers' the words and creates a set of referents (Deep structures, 4-tuples) that constitute the perceived meaning of the message. Thus, when people communicate with one another using symbols, it is inevitable that the set of referents one person assigns to a particular symbol will not conform isomorphically to the referents the other person assigns to that same symbol. This is the source of debates on semantics and the "proper" meanings of words. This is also the process that results in ambiguity.

Types of ambiguity

Linguistic theorists have identified 2 main types of ambiguity:

Lexical Ambiguity: Also known as Semantic ambiguity, Lexical ambiguity is when a word has more than one generally accepted meaning. Example: Drunk gets nine months in violin case.

Syntactic Ambiguity: Also known as structural ambiguity, Syntactic ambiguity is when the role a word plays in a sentence is unclear. Example: Squad helps dog bite victim.

Other types of ambiguity have also been identified by linguists. They generally exist as subtypes of Syntactic or Lexical ambiguity.

Scope ambiguity: It is under debate whether this type of ambiguity is a form of syntactic or lexical ambiguity, or whether it represents a unique class of ambiguity. An example of this type of ambiguity is: Prostitutes appeal to Pope.

Phonological ambiguity: This is a subtype of Lexical ambiguity that occurs when a set of sounds can be interpreted in more than one way. In essence, it is a type of ambiguity that arises at the level of the surface structure rather than the deep structure. Example: psychotherapist = psycho therapist.

Punctuation ambiguity: This can be considered as a mix of syntactic and lexical ambiguity. The ambiguity in this case is also in the surface structure rather than the deep structure. Example: I want you to notice your hand me the glass.

Grouping ambiguity: This is a type of Syntactic ambiguity that is ambiguous because it is unclear whether a modifier in a sentence modifies only one or several objects. Example: Hand me the red and yellow balls. (Hand me the red ball and the yellow ball, Hand me the balls that are red and yellow)

purple_curtain writes about a type of syntactic ambiguity known as ambiguity of cross-reference, which is essentially an ambiguity of referent when using pronouns. Example: Bob kicked Tom, and he broke his leg.

Linguistic ambiguities of this type and the fact that language is symbolic have posed huge problems for computer scientists attempting to implement various Natural Language Processing (NLP) techniques. The manner in which our brain processes language and the reactions people typically have to ambiguities like these has been a major place of leverage for those employing the techniques of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP).


Sources:
Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. by John Grinder and Richard Bandler
http://wilkes.edu/~tindell/Ed515/langcomp.htm
http://mirrorname.crosswinds.net/PhonAmb.html
http://207.5.93.160/articles/phonetic.asp
http://www.cs.umn.edu/news/items/152.html
http://www.xrefer.com/entry/572050
http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/rbeard/syntax.html
http://online.sfsu.edu/~kbach/ambguity.html

Am`bi*gu"i*ty (#), n.; pl. Ambiguities (#). [L. ambiguitas, fr. ambiguus: cf. F. ambiguit'e.]

The quality or state of being ambiguous; doubtfulness or uncertainty, particularly as to the signification of language, arising from its admitting of more than one meaning; an equivocal word or expression.

No shadow of ambiguity can rest upon the course to be pursued. I. Taylor.

The words are of single signification, without any ambiguity. South.

 

© Webster 1913.

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