Introduction to Vagueness and Ambiguity

Though seemingly synonymous in common usage, vagueness and ambiguity are entirely different but very important problems in critical thinking.

Definitions

  • A word or phrase is said to be ambiguous if it has at least two specific meanings that make sense in context.
  • A word or phrase is said to be vague if its meaning is not clear in context.

The difference, then, is a clear one (and not at all vague): If Montgomery doesn't know what is meant by a phrase, then that phrase is vague for him. If Montgomery doesn't know which of two or more specific meanings is intended, then it is ambiguous for him.

Have you seen the ad on TV about trying "to quit smoking cold turkey"? Van's little sister asked her who would want to smoke cold turkey in the first place! That is a perfect example of an unintentional ambiguity and the problems it can cause.

Consider this line from a help-wanted ad: "Three-year-old teacher needed for pre-school." Most people think this is funny, because the ad seems to be seeking a teacher that is three years old. But the phrase is ambiguous: the ad is actually seeking a teacher for three-year-old pre-schoolers. The phrase is ambiguous because two specific and distinct meanings can be applied to it in the given context. (Notice, however, that the level of ambiguity is dependent on the terms involved. "English teacher needed for pre-school" would normally not be considered ambiguous, though in certan contexts it could be understood to be seeking a teacher from England. But how about "Vietnamese teacher needed for pre-school"?)

Vagueness, though, is a different problem. "Nurse needed for pre-school" is vague because there are many kinds of nurses, and the same job is certainly not open to them all: registered nurses, practical nurses, wet nurses, nannies, and so on. The problem is that the word "nurse" has many meanings, and so the ad's usage is vague. The more details that are supplied, the less vague a phrase will be. "Registered nurse needed for pre-school" would be less vague, "Registered nurses with pediatric experience needed for pre-school" would be even less so. Notice that, for almost every word or phrase, you can probably imagine some situation in which it would be vague. We can tolerate a certain level of vagueness in language, but it is the job of a critical thinker to minimize vagueness by ensuring the language used is appropriate for its context--that is, for its subject and its audience.



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1. When Barry Goldwater ran for president, his slogan was, "In your heart, you know he's right." In what way is that phrase ambiguous?

  "In your heart" means "you feel" but it says "you know."
  It says "you know," but it doesn't say how you know it.
 "Right" here could mean either "correct" or "conservative."

2. After Hubert Humphrey lost the election to Richard Nixon, he said, "I'd always wanted to run for president in the worst way, and now I have." In what way is that sentence ambiguous?

 He doesn't really mean "always." He didn't want to run for president when he was only a year old.
 "In the worst way" could mean "very much" or "very poorly."
 "And now I have" could mean "now I have run" or "now I have wanted to run."

3. Which of the following phrases seems least vague?

 The president's advisor.
 The president's most trusted advisor.
 The president's most trusted advisor on Middle East negotiations.
 The president's most trusted advisor on foreign policy.

1. When Barry Goldwater ran for president, his slogan was, "In your heart, you know he's right." In what way is that phrase ambiguous? You answered:

 "Right" here could mean either "correct" or "conservative."

Correct!

2. After Hubert Humphrey lost the election to Richard Nixon, he said, "I'd always wanted to run for president in the worst way, and now I have." In what way is that sentence ambiguous? You answered:

 "In the worst way" could mean "very much" or "very poorly."

Correct!

3. Which of the following phrases seems least vague? You answered:

 The president's most trusted advisor on Middle East negotiations.

Correct!

1. When Barry Goldwater ran for president, his slogan was, "In your heart, you know he's right." In what way is that phrase ambiguous?

 "In your heart" means "you feel" but it says "you know."

If "in you heart" is ambiguous, there should be at least two meanings that could be understood for it here. Instead, whether "in your heart" you can "feel" or "know" is a question of clarity, which suggests that this may be an issue of vagueness, but not of ambiguity.

1. When Barry Goldwater ran for president, his slogan was, "In your heart, you know he's right." In what way is that phrase ambiguous? You answered:

 It says "you know," but it doesn't say how you know it.

"In your heart, you know he's right" is a verifiable claim, whether the point to be verified is understood as "what is in your heart" or "what you know." "How you know it" should not be an issue here, and even if it were, to be ambiguous it would have to be understood in different ways, which is not the case here.

2. After Hubert Humphrey lost the election to Richard Nixon, he said, "I'd always wanted to run for president in the worst way, and now I have." In what way is that sentence ambiguous? You answered:

 "And now I have" could mean "now I have run" or "now I have wanted to run."

If, in fact, "and now I have" could have those two meanings, the phrase may have been ambiguous here. But the tenses don't work: to refer to "wanted to run," we would have to understand the last phrase was "and now I have had wanted to run" (which makes no sense grammatically), or "and now I have wanted to run," which just repeats the meaning of "I always wanted to run."

2. After Hubert Humphrey lost the election to Richard Nixon, he said, "I'd always wanted to run for president in the worst way, and now I have." In what way is that sentence ambiguous? You answered:

 He doesn't really mean "always." He didn't want to run for president when he was only a year old.

It's true that "always" may be misused here, but misuse isn't necessarily ambiguity. To be ambiguous, "always" would have to be understood in two specific ways, and that isn't the problem here.

3. Which of the following phrases seems least vague?You answered:

 The president's advisor.

Generally speaking, the more details given, the less vague the claim is. When an equal number of details seem to be given, though, the issue becomes one of the specificity of those details. For example, "the president's most trusted advisor" is more specific (and therefore less vague) than "the president's advisor," because it qualifies "advisor" further with the phrase "most trusted." But there are answers for this question that qualify "advisor" still further, and so are even less vague.

3. Which of the following phrases seems least vague? You answered:

 The president's most trusted advisor.

Generally speaking, the more details given, the less vague the claim is. When an equal number of details seem to be given, though, the issue becomes one of the specificity of those details. For example, "the president's most trusted advisor" is more specific (and therefore less vague) than "the president's advisor." But there are choices that qualify the noun "advisor" still further.

3. Which of the following phrases seems least vague? You answered:

 The president's most trusted advisor on foreign policy.

Generally speaking, the more details given, the less vague the claim is. When an equal number of details seem to be given, though, the issue becomes one of the specificity of those details. For example, "the president's most trusted advisor" is more specific (and therefore less vague) than "the president's advisor." But what of the other detail offered, the qualification "on foreign policy"?

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