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Ambiguity: What in hell Do You Mean?

Popularity 3Viewed 2067 times 2014-6-30 21:43 |Personal category:杂侃|System category:Others| ambiguity, transcultural

Last night when surfing the Internet, I noticed an interesting humor which goes like,

- “Could I try on the trousers in the window?"

- “You can if you want, Sir; but we do have a dressing room!"


To be specific, the humorous dialogue arises from misunderstandings between a shop assistant and a customer. Apparently, the prepositional phrase "in the window" is the root cause of the misunderstanding. The customer wants to try on the trousers which are presented in the window; however, the shop assistant misinterprets the meaning thinking that the customer wants to try in the window. From the perspective of syntax, prepositional phrase “in the window” functions ambiguously on whether it acts as an adverbial to modify the verb phrase "try on" or an attribute to modify the object “the trousers”. So an ambiguity comes into being.


In fact, ambiguity is a common phenomenon in daily communication, which indicates more than one interpretation towards target text. It can be found from many levels in terms of linguistics. For phonetics, wrong pronunciation and accents of different areas could produce deviated understanding. For semantics, one word with a variety of meanings can give birth to ambiguity when received by the other side who may interpret from another aspect. In addition to the communication within one country, ambiguity also generates in cross-cultural communication when people with different mother tongues talk in the same language, because they tend to understand from their native language spontaneously which has its own specific system and derivation process. So it is necessary for us to pay attention to this phenomenon and avoid producing ambiguity by ourselves.


The humor above actually is a good manifestation of syntactic ambiguity caused by prepositional phrase. In general, PPs which are flexible and concise enough to express meanings are frequently used in daily communication; consequently, they are prone to bring about syntactic ambiguity if used improperly. When encountered with this kind of ambiguity, readers can easily dismiss it by looking through the context and find the correct answer. However, if the information is conveyed orally without any text to refer to, the real meaning of the speaker can only be grasped by guess and detailed inquiry.


In order not to generate unnecessary misunderstandings, we’d better express our ideas in a detailed and specific way. It is advisable to add components like determiners, punctuations and predicate verbs to make the expression as comprehensive as possible. If the customer in the humor says he wants to try on the trouser which is shown in the window, I believe the shop assistant may not misunderstand him.

What do you mean by that?

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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Comment Comment (8 comments)

Reply Report teamkrejados 2014-8-21 11:38
"Does your office have a dress code?"
"No, we don't have to wear anything at all."
What a free-spirited office!  
Reply Report RitaY 2014-8-21 14:08
teamkrejados: "Does your office have a dress code?"
"No, we don't have to wear anything at all."
What a free-spirited office!     ...
Reply Report teamkrejados 2014-8-22 05:35
Glad to share a laugh with you. Have a great day!
Reply Report RitaY 2014-8-22 15:53
teamkrejados: Glad to share a laugh with you. Have a great day!
You, too. Enjoy everyday!

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