Ambiguity in Writing

I was having this discussion with my friend the other day about ambiguity and vagueness in writing. It started out wondering about universal truths in philosophical terms. I asked if there was such a thing as a universal truth that could be considered objective. We wondered if maybe a sentence describing a situation in time that could be considered a universal truth such as “There is a cup on the table and 9:40 PM.” I pointed out though that one person may view that flat surface with supporting legs as a table and someone else may view it as a desk. So if they can’t agree, is the sentence still a universal truth?

So for the next few days we’ve both been pondering about vagueness and ambiguity in writing. Is it possible to clearly convey your intent without making your writing too tedious? Or is there a point where the author should accept that it is impossible to make everyone see and read what he/she intended? Is it possible to predict all interpretations and write in a way to avoid all misconceptions?

I think I am leaning toward no, that it is not possible and as an author there is no way that you can possible achieve that. And that is why the books that we read and reread are so good. It’s because there are so many possible interpretations and we will never know what the author’s intent is (or that it should even matter . . . very formalist, no?). I mean, I will never be able to figure out whether Shakespeare was for England invading France or whether he thought it was kind of a bad idea from reading Henry V. But that is why I like it. I may be able to go and dissect the text and formulate my own hypothesis, but I will never know Shakespeare’s real intent.

So, I am curious what everyone else thinks. Do you feel that it is important and possible to have your intent clearly understood by all your audience or do you think there is a point that you have to let go of your text and be okay with someone seeing an analogy for baseball where there never ever was one (or something like that)?

Also, by vagueness, I mean the philosophical term in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy:

vagueness Many sentences are relatively vague; others relatively precise. A term that is perfectly precise would generate no borderline cases, and although this is often presented as a theoretical ideal it is extremely unclear that any learnable, speakable language could begin to meet it. For even basic observations (‘this is red’) admit of borderline cases (in the oranges and purples), and even when care is taken to make terms as precise as possible, unforeseen contingencies, new kinds of discovery, and things with new combinations of properties, may always provide hard cases whose classification is left unclear.

Let me know what you writers think?


Sky said...

Karli, is this you?
I had to laugh when you defined the word "vague" in a discussion on universal truths.
Tempests in teacups? I don't think it's a question of style and word choice, as in working hard to get across the exact same idea we thought of to our intended audience, as it is nailing down the truth. Whether that truth is our own truth or a universal truth doesn't matter. We have to see clearly before we can talk clearly about even teacups.

Cools said...


I love the definition of vagueness you posted. It was sufficiently vague as to allow application, but specific enough to be generally understood by the majority of the people who read it. I guess some people will still say, "but I need more examples of exactly what 'vague' IS!" And other will cry, "But can't vague also mean. . . ?"