A sentence having two or more possible meanings. Sensitivity to ambiguity and vagueness in writing and speech is essential to good thinking. A continual effort to be clear and precise in language usage is fundamental to education. Ambiguity is a problem more of sentences than of individual words. Furthermore, not every sentence that can be construed in more than one way is problematic and deserving of analysis. Many sentences are clearly intended one way; any other construal is obviously absurd and not meant. For example, “Make me a sandwich.” is never seriously intended to request metamorphic change. It is a poor example for teaching genuine insight into critical thinking. For an example of a problematic ambiguity, consider the statement, “Welfare is corrupt.” Among the possible meanings of this sentence are the following:
- Those who administer welfare programs take bribes to administer welfare policy unfairly;
- Welfare policies are written in such a way that much of the money goes to people who don’t deserve it rather than to those who do;
- A government that gives money to people who haven’t earned it corrupts both the giver and the recipient.
If two people are arguing about whether or not welfare is corrupt, but interpret the claim differently, they can make little or no progress; they aren’t arguing about the same point. Evidence and considerations relevant to one interpretation may be irrelevant to others.« Back to Glossary Index