THE UNIVERSITY OF DODOMA
Qn 9 Disambiguate the following sentences and state the types of ambiguity in each construction
(A) He did not see his chair
(B) Is that the mouth?
(C) I slapped him while reading a novel.
(D) Marry is angry because she is sick.
In attempting to answer the question, the wok has been divided into three major parts
Definitions of the key terms have been provided. These include
2. To Disambiguate
• MAIN BODY
The details of the question have been given. This include
1. Types of Ambiguity
2. Disambiguating the Sentences stated in the Question
Ambiguity is a property of words or sentences of having two or more meanings. Stewart & Vaillet (2001)
Ambiguity is where a word or phrase is capable of two or more meanings and which in the context raises doubt or uncertainty as to which is intended. http//www.duhaime.org/../ambiguity.aspx
Generally speaking, ambiguity is the state in which a word, phrase or the whole sentence has more than one possible interpretations/meaning.
To disambiguate is to show clearly the difference between two or more words, phrases etc which are similar in meaning. (Advanced Learners Dictionary 6th ed)
Types of Ambiguity
There are three major types of Ambiguity namely
(A) Lexical Ambiguity
(B) Structural/Syntactic Ambiguity
(C) Non-Lexical Ambiguity.
There may also be minor types such as.
(D) Intonation Ambiguity.
(E) Metaphorical Ambiguity.
Lexical ambiguity arises when at least one word in a phrase has more than one meaning. Fromkin et al (2007:178). This is a type of Ambiguity based on lexical words. In many cases a single word corresponds to more than one thought. According to Vaillet & Stewart (2001) words with more than one meaning are said to be lexically ambiguous. Example; bank, crane, spring, run, light, iron.
Lexical Ambiguity is also when a lexical item has more than one meaning chiefly treated by homonymy and polysemy.
Those caused by homonyms include: bank, iron, park, pupil just to mention a few.
For example if someone asks; “ Would you bring me an iron please?” the hearer will not clearly know which iron to bring; “a metal iron” or “a tool with a flat base used for making cloths smooth when heated”. Example.
He drove back to the park
Meaning 1. He drove back to the animal Park
Meaning 2. He drove back to the car parking
Those caused by polysems, include; head, flight, heat just to mention a few.
Example 1. He has a good head
Part of the body- Part of the body above the neck
Mind- He has a good mind
Top part- He has a good title
Example 2. The student showed me the head.
Meaning 1. The student showed me the leader of school/department/institution
Meaning. 2. The student showed me the part of the body above the neck.
Example 2. The Prime minister was put under heat.
The Prime Minister was put under high temperature
The Prime Minister was put under pressure
Is where a phrase or sentence has got more than one interpretations. Stewart & Vaillet(2001) point out that phrases with more than one meaning, because of the structure of the phrase are referred to as structurally ambiguous. Also Cruse (2004) comments that, many syntactic ambiguities arise from the possibility of alternative constituent structures.
More examples from Syal and Jindal (2007:102) illustrate this structural ambiguity
They called her a taxi
Meaning 1: They nicknamed her a ‘taxi’
Meaning 2: They called a taxi for her.
The magician made her an iron box
Meaning 1: the magician made an iron box for her.
Meaning 2: the magician changed her into an iron box
I stepped on a snake crossing the road
Meaning 1: I stepped on the snake that was crossing the road
Meaning 2: I stepped on a snake when I was crossing the road
Structural ambiguity may be caused by;
Example 1.. hunting lion is dangerous. This can probably mean
1. The act of hunting lions is dangerous or
2.The lion that is hunting is dangerous
Example 2.Flying planes can be risky. This could probably mean;
1. The act of flying planes can be risky, or
2. The planes that are flying can be risky
Misplaced modifiers. This is when the meaning of the component words can be combined in more than one way. O’grady et al(1997:284).
Example . Old men and women are wise.
Meaning 1: Only old men and all women are wise.
Meaning 2: Old men and old women are wise.
Improper use of punctuation marks.
Eg. Isack, Mwakatundu is calling you.
Isack Mwaktundu is calling you.
This is caused by the omission of some important words from a construction.
Example 1. Mwanyerere said she would come or telephone me but she didn’t.
She didn’t do what? She didn’t come, or she didn’t telephone.
Example 2.Mtundu says he will either marry or remain a bachelor but I don’t think so.
“So” stands for what?
I don’t think he will marry or I don’t think he will remain a bachelor
I like ice-cream more than you
1. I like ice-cream more than you like it
2. I like ice-cream more than I like you.
He loves his children more than his wife
He loves his children more than he loves his wife
He loves his children more than how his wife loves them.
This is triggered by pronouns. Pronouns are the sources of non-lexical ambiguity (pronoun Ambiguity)
Example1. Mwita asked Mzambili to meet him at Jamatini but he did not appear;
Meaning 1: Mwita asked Mzambili to meet him at Jamatini but Mwita did not appear
Meaning 2: Mwita asked Mzambili to meet him at Jamatini but Mzambili did not appear.
Example 2.He did not see his book.
Meaning 1: He did not see his own book
Meaning 2: He did not see someone’s book
The minor types of ambiguity include the following
This is caused by improper use of intonation/stress in particular words of sentences. This is specifically in spoken form.
Example. Mr. Bata is here
Miss Tabata is here
This is caused by the use of metaphors/metaphorical expressions in some constructions. When someone is not aware of that metaphorical expression it may cause ambiguity to him/her.
For example. Ndaikya has become a lion.
Ndaikya has turned into a lion.
Ndaikya behaves like a lion.
Disambiguating the sentences below and stating the types of ambiguity.
(A) He did not see his chair.
This sentence has got two possible types of ambiguity thus calling for four different interpretations.
If we consider first the word chair, we observe that it may mean.
1. A piece of furniture for sitting on.
2. A person who holds position of being in charge of a meeting. Advanced Learners Dictionary. (6th ed)
This could possibly mean;
Meaning 1. He did not see his seat
Meaning 2. He did not see his chairperson
This is lexical ambiguity as the lexical item chair is a polysem with more than one possible interpretation.
On the other hand if we consider the use of the pronoun his we observe that it does not specify clearly whose chair he did not see. Whether his own chair, or someone else’s chair?
To disambiguate it the following approaches can be used.
The sentence can be re-phrased as in (1) below or the name (instead of a pronoun) should be included if it refers to someone else other than himself as in (2) below.
1. He did not see his own chair.
2. He did not see (Mwakibinga’s) chair.
This is a non-lexical Ambiguity since it is triggered by a pronoun-his.
(B) Is that the mouth?
The lexical item mouth is a polysem with more than one possible interpretation. So to disambiguate it, the items containing the “mouth” should be mentioned to contextualize it, or the alternative words should be used.
The term mouth means;
1. A part of the face.
2. An entrance/opening
3. Of a river – a place where the river joins the sea.
To disambiguate it the following possible interpretations can be used.
1. Is that the mouth of a lion?
2. Is that the mouth of the cave/entrance of the cave?
3. Is that the mouth/end of river Mara?
This is lexical ambiguity since the lexical item “mouth” has got more than one interpretation/meaning.
(C) I slapped him while reading a novel.
The sentence above does not specify who was reading a novel. The suggestion is that, in order to disambiguate it, the subject of the second clause should be included to show clearly who was reading a novel.
This may have the following possible interpretations.
1. I slapped him while I was reading a novel.
2. I slapped him while he was reading a novel.
This is structural ambiguity since the whole sentence structure itself creates ambiguity.
(D) Marry is angry because she is sick.
In this sentence the pronoun “she” creates ambiguity since it does not state clearly who is really sick; whether, Marry herself, or someone else and so Marry is angry.
The suggestion is that, to disambiguate it, the sentence can be re-phrased as in (1) below if it refers to Marry herself or the name of the second person (instead of the pronoun) should be included if it refers to someone else other than Marry as in (2) below.
To disambiguate it we may say;
1. Marry is angry because she herself is sick.
2. Marry is angry because (her mother) is sick.
This is a non-lexical ambiguity as it is triggered by the pronoun she.
Any natural language is subject to ambiguity. Ambiguity arises from how the speakers of the language use it in different contexts for communication. That being the case, speakers are advised to select words appropriately if their communication is to be effective. Sometimes ambiguity is obligatory since some words, by nature, have more than one meaning, but the context in which they are used, may help in providing a clue as to which meaning is intended by the speaker.
Advanced learners Dictionary 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press
Cruse, A (2004) Meaning in Language; An Introduction to Semantics and Pragmatics.New
York: Oxford University Press.
http//www.duhaime.org/../ambiguity.aspx visited on 04 may 2011
O’Grady et al (1997) Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction: Lonndon: St.Martins Press
Stewart and Vaillet. (2001) Language Files: Materials for An Introduction to Language and
Linguistics: Columbus: Ohio State University Press
Syal and Jindal (2007) An Introduction to Linguistics: Language Grammar and Semantics.
2nd ed. New Delhi: Asoke K, Ghosh, Printice-Hall of India Priate Limited
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