Term of Art: Ambiguity

Ever since William Empson published Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) this term has had some weight and importance in critical evaluation. In brief, Empson’s theory was that things are not often what they seem, that words connote at least as much as they denote—and very often more.  Empson explained thus: ‘We call it ambiguous…when we recognize that there should be a puzzle as to what the author meant, in that alternative views might be taken without sheer misreading….An ambiguity, in ordinary speech, means something very pronounced, and as a rule witty or deceitful.’ He uses every word in an extended sense and finds relevance in any ‘verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.’ ‘The machinations of ambiguity,’ he says, ‘are among the very roots of poetry.’

He distinguishes seven main types, which may summarized as follows:

  1. When a detail is effective in several ways simultaneously.
  2. When two or more alternative meanings are resolved into one.
  3. When two apparently unconnected meanings are given simultaneously.
  4. When alternative meanings combine to make clear a complicated state of mind in the author.
  5. A kind of confusion when a writer discovers his idea while actually writing. In other words, he has not apparently preconceived the idea but come upon it during the act of creation.
  6. Where something appears to contain a contradiction and the reader has to find interpretations.
  7. A complete contradiction which shows that the author was unclear as to what he was saying.

In varying degrees, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem The Bugler’s First Communion exemplifies all seven types.”

Excerpted from: Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. New York: Penguin, 1992.

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