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Ambiguity comes in visual as well as linguistic forms: the duck–rabbit illusion is a good example (the duck faces left, the rabbit faces right).
A white vase, or two silhouette profiles facing each other?
Is she spinning clockwise or anti-clockwise? To switch, try following the shadow for a while instead; then look up to the raised leg itself.

In linguistic text, ambiguity is the possibility of two quite different meanings with exactly the same wording. Identifying and correcting ambiguity can sharpen your writing and copy-editing skills. Ambiguity occurs in all languages, but English is particularly prone. Unlike other Germanic languages, much of its morphological grammar was stripped away more than a thousand years ago; so the way modern English phrases and clauses relate to each other is complicated, and many words can function in several ways.

The same word, for example, can often serve as a noun or a verb ("Union demands increased unemployment", "we saw her duck"), and many words have multiple meanings ("prostitutes appeal to the pope", "the children made tasty meals"). There can be grammatical ambiguity, beyond the scope of individual words: "we asked how old Joe was" (how old was he? or how was he doing?); and "The chicken is ready to eat" (ready for us to eat it, or ready to eat its feed in the yard?).

English does have unfortunate engineering faults, such as the idiomatic ambiguity in "I can't recommend this dish too highly";1 and let's not forget words that—embarrassingly—can convey starkly opposite meanings ("in this city they sanction drug-dealing"; "she secretly replaced the cup she had chipped"). Hyphens (and en dashes) can make a difference ("a senior class teacher" is a class teacher who is senior, but "a senior-class teacher" teaches a senior class; see MOS:HYPHEN). So can commas ("The author thanked her parents, Sinéad O'Connor and President Obama", referring to four rather than two people).

Ambiguity may be removed by changing the word order, the grammar, or the punctuation, or by substituting a word that is unambiguous in the context.

The exercises below are meant to be entertaining. Often the task is a puzzle, and some of the unintended meanings can be amusing. To make it more challenging, ambiguous sentences are mixed randomly with some that are unambiguous: it would be too easy if you knew that every example was ambiguous. Some that are ambiguous would be perfectly fine in a larger context, and some wouldn't; but here, you're asked to consider the examples in isolation. This is a laboratory situation, if you like.

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Feedback on how to improve these exercises is welcome on the talk page.

1Some of the examples in the lead are adapted from a book by Noel Burton-Roberts, from a NYT-affiliated website, and from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, all cited below.

Self-help writing tutorials:



  • For each exercise, we ask you to decide whether the sentence is ambiguous.
  • If you think there's no possible double meaning, click on the box labelled Not ambiguous.
  • If you think it is ambiguous, try to identify the two meanings in your mind, and then click open the box labelled Ambiguous.

First setEdit


The missing iPod was found by the hotel.

Instructions: Decide whether this is ambiguous or not; then click on your decision. (If you think it is ambiguous, first think through what the alternative meanings are.) Then click on show at the right of whichever decision you've made.


System 2 in Kahneman’s scheme is our slow, deliberate, analytical, and consciously effortful mode of reasoning about the world.


Some of Bangkok's poorest people live on water.


This is the only documentary ever on the famous composer Anton Bruckner (1824–96) filmed in the 1970s by Hans Conrad Fischer.


The flagship event takes place in Delhi, where the prime minister hoists the national flag at the Red Fort and delivers a nationally broadcast speech from its ramparts.


They have shared views on the euro crisis.

Second setEdit


Nearby Epsilon Aurigae is an eclipsing binary with an unusually long period.


The dogs barked at the gate.


Hawking's unimpressive study habits resulted in a final examination score on the borderline between first- and second-class honours, making an oral examination necessary.


One of his fellow judges, Sir Robin Dunn, described him as the worst judge since the war.


Include the dinner guests when preparing the roast lamb.


The government is ready to share the lessons learned with the people.

Third setEdit


Put the ornament on the chair by the door in the living room.


This function will add pages you move to your watchlist.


Critical attention has focused on changing patterns of media consumption and engagement.


The scenes in which Mulder infiltrates the facility were shot at a real United States airbase.


Beer drinkers are turning to powder.


It is one of a group of closely related animals that are descended from a common ancestral line of toads and which form a species complex.

Fourth setEdit


She spoke about the idea of information patterns that can't physically exist in that video.


Everyone in San Francisco is thinking about someone in Sacramento.


Desha argued that a large standing army provided the advocates of a larger federal government with an excuse to increase taxes, and proposed that the standing army consist of only 6,000 men.


The current laws are designed to prevent media companies from gaining dominance in any one capital city by limiting their ownership of television.


The impact on the world economy of new and rapid networks of transport and communications at the end of the 19th century was at least as dramatic as the transformation wrought by the Internet and the deregulation and liberalization of financial markets a century later.


More surprisingly to Halperin, some gay commentators were extremely critical, seeing in his course descriptions a reversal of blatant stereotypes that excluded many homosexual men.


We enable code contributions from community and staff while protecting the quality and security of MediaWiki as it supports our projects.


The government retreated from its undertaking to maximise free speech by minimising racial-hatred protections.

Fifth setEdit


“and good will toward the project – a remarkable feat of altruism – could hardly be higher”

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit