How to Differentiate Between Vagueness and Ambiguity


Once you begin writing papers or giving oral presentations on a regular basis, it's almost inevitable that your teacher will return one with a note that says, “This is vague” or “This is ambiguous.” You have to differentiate between vagueness and ambiguity to bring greater clarity to your efforts.

Lacking Clarity

  • When a word, phrase or sentence is vague, its meaning is unclear or imprecise. Vague statements often beg a follow-up question. For example, if you write or say, “He didn't live up to my expectations” this vague statement would beg the question, “Well, what were your expectations?” Likewise, if you were to write or say, “He was prone to worse behavior than that,” the likely retort would be, “Like what?” Review your words, phrases and sentences to make them as clear and precise as possibl, and add a follow-up sentence to crystallize your meaning if it helps to do so. Don't place the reader or listener in the position of assuming your intent.

Multiple Meanings

  • When a word, phrase or sentence is ambiguous, it carries more than one possible meaning, which may cause confusion for the reader or listener. For example, if you were to write or say, “I know more talented teachers than John Smith,” this could mean that you know teachers who are more talented than John Smith or that you know a greater number of talented teachers than John Smith does. Sometimes, ambiguous statements can be unintentionally humorous, but this quality doesn't excuse the confusion they cause. For example, if you were to write or say, “Theresa kissed her husband, and so did Betsy,” you could mean that Betsy also kissed Theresa's husband or that she kissed her own husband. Ambiguous words, phrases and sentences also can be vague; the best way to identify ambiguity is to ask if a word, phrase or sentence carries a double meaning. If the answer is “yes,” then it is ambiguous.


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