Which Words or Phrases Are Ambiguous?
- Course Objectives:
The course will enable students to:
- Analyze the structure of an argument.
- Understand the way language is used to influence thinking, feelings and behavior.
- Identify ambiguities, assumptions, values, and fallacies in reasoning.
When something is ambiguous, it means that there could be more than one meaning. Ambiguous means that something could be uncertain or indefinite.
At this point, you should be able to identify the issue, the conclusion, and the reasons, which are the structural elements of an argument. Once you have determined that an argument is structurally complete, you can begin to evaluate the quality of its content. In order to begin to evaluate the quality of an argument you must make certain that you do understand the content. You must be sure that you understand the meaning of the elements of the reasoning structure.
Content, context, or meaning of the key terms and phrases associated with the issue, conclusion, and reasons of an argument is crucial in understanding the argument itself. The acceptability or value of the communicator’s reasoning is completely dependant upon the interpretation of key words and phrases.
Did you ever miss the point that someone was communicating to you? Did you ever have to ask for clarification? If this has happened to you, and you know it has, the problem was probably because of ambiguity.
Read the following passage once, without stopping, and let us see what happens.
The boy’s arrows were nearly gone so they sat down on the grass and stopped hunting. Over at the edge of the woods they saw Henry making a small bow to a girl who was coming down the road. She had tears in her dress and tears in her eyes. She gave Henry a note, which he brought over to the group of young hunters. Read to the boys, it caused great excitement. After a minute, but rapid examination of their weapons, they ran down to the valley. Does were standing at the edge of the lake, making an excellent target. (Source unknown.)
Confusing Flexibility of Words
No pun intended but the above passage should give you pause to think and that is the point. We have a tendency to both speed-read and to assume that the meanings of the words that we encounter are obvious.
In some instances, words are spelled the same way but have different pronunciations and different meanings. (Tears in eyes, tears in dress). In some instances, words are spelled the same, pronounced the same but have a different meaning dependant upon context. (Jam the door, jam on bread).
Abstractness can also lead to ambiguity. Consider the word obscenity. American society spent a good portion of the second half of the twentieth century attempting to define this word. With the changing of societal values came a challenge to what was deemed to be obscene. United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall noted that one man’s art is another man’s pornography. When asked if he could define obscene material Justice Marshall was alleged to reply, “I know it when I see it.”
Loaded language, and its intentional use, is another contributing factor, which leads to ambiguity. Loaded language is a favorite tool of politicians and advertisers. No politician will tell you that they are going to raise your taxes, but if they want to increase “revenue enhancements” then that is what their going to do. A car dealer will tell you that there is no money down and sixty “easy” monthly payments of $350.00. When was the last time you “easily” spent $350.00 on a regular basis?
You should now be aware that not all words have a single meaning. If that were the case, communication would be highly effective and there would be no misunderstandings. Take your time when you listen or when you read and make sure that you do understand the content and context.
TIPS FOR FINDING AMBIGUITIES
*Check the Issue for Key Terms
Once you have identified the issue you should check it for key terms or phrases. Ask yourself if you truly understand the meaning. Could another meaning be substituted which would change the nature of the argument?
*Check the Reasons and the Conclusion for Key Terms
Do you understand the meanings of the key terms and phrases in the reasoning structure? Could another meaning be substituted?
*Check for Abstract Words and Phrases
The more abstract a word, the more meanings you can discover. Be wary of encompassing words, words that can have multiple meanings.
*Use Reverse Role Play
Play devil’s advocate. If you were opposed to the author, how might you define key terms and phrases?
Ambiguity and the Sources of Meaning
Meanings of words usually come in one of three forms: synonyms, examples, and definition by specific criteria. Searching for these sources of meaning while looking for ambiguities can make the process easier. You want to find the most likely meaning of a word when you identify a key term or phrase and knowing the sources of meaning will benefit you.
Watch television, listen to the radio or read a newspaper and you are very likely to encounter a statistic. Most statistics seem very impressive, such as the average American household is comprised of 4.6 people or that the use of seat-belts have reduced the number of motor vehicle accident fatalities by 32%. While statistics appear to seem incredibly precise they are based on information that usually proves too inadequate for precision.
Professor Hans L. Trefousse, Professor of American History at the City University of New York, always used an interesting metaphor whenever someone presented him with statistical information. He likened statistics to a skimpy bathing suit, because they can show something that is quite revealing, yet hide the essentials. His metaphor is amusing and true. Whenever we encounter numbers, or see a percentage sign, we have a tendency to immediately accept these statistics as fact. When we do this we make the giant assumption that the person who created the statistics, or the person using them, is not mistaken or misleading.
Let us pretend that St. Joseph’s College wants to come up with a new advertising campaign to increase the enrollment of the School of Adult and Professional Education. The college contracts an independent research firm to poll recent St. Joseph’s graduates and recent graduates from the other private colleges in Brooklyn. The result of the poll becomes the new advertising campaign.
The major discovery of the poll was that graduates of the School of Adult and Professional Education at St. Joseph’s College tended to earn more money than the graduates from other colleges. The average household income for a St. Joseph’s graduate was $72,000 a year as opposed to only $31,000 for graduates from the other private colleges. Using this data the School of Adult and Professional Education created a new recruitment campaign whose slogan was “If you want to succeed come to SJC.”
The statistics seem to be impressive. It would appear that if you enroll at St. Joseph’s College you are destined to increase your salary. However, there are quite a number questions that need to be asked before you can accept the validity of the statistics. These questions focus on the methodology of the statistics.
How was the survey done? How many people were surveyed? How many people responded? How certain can you be that the respondents were truthful or accurate? The answers to these questions are required in order for you to judge the value of the statistics.
Assume that 180 St. Joseph’s graduates were surveyed and 18 responded. That is only a 10% response rate. That low of a response rate can have a significant impact on the value of the statistics. Out of the 10% that responded there is no way to
independently verify their responses.
Now you can begin to appreciate the importance of understanding the methodology of a statistic. If you do not know the source of a statistic, nor how was it gathered, it should be rejected.
1. Ambiguity is a word, or phrase that has two or more possible different meaning. I searched the text to find words and/or phrases that could sound like one thing but mean another. In this article, the author had an agenda that he pushed. He wants this audience to believe that the death penalty isn’t a bad thing, when used for heinous crimes. So I had to carefully read through the text as I know he was using words and phrases to ensure that he got his point across. One of the phrases “We must fight fire with fire “stood out to me. This phrase could mean several things. While he wants people to think of death penalty in a good light, however one could say that he wants to kill those who kill others. Personally I do not believe that this would be something that morally would be appropriate. For someone who is a Christian, I believe that “vengeance is the lord”, and not my own. So to kill someone who killed someone else, wouldn’t be a narrative that I would subscribe to. The second phrase that stood out to m “Life is precious and the death penalty just reaffirms that fact” sounds contradictory. If life is precious, then why would one want to implement something that intends to kill others. Wouldn’t the lives of everyone be precious, not just those of that would have been killed by heinous crimes?
EXAMPLE OF REPLY
When I think of “ambiguity”, politicians always come to mind. They have such an important role of leading the country and communicating to the public on important topics. But they often use general blanket statements, or cite problems without providing the data to back them up. I guess someone has to keep political fact checkers employed!! But it makes me worried that we’re rewarding those public figures for playing on our trends and emotions – pushing for what “sells”, rather than what is factually accurate. The death penalty also boggles my mind a bit. How can anyone decide that someone should be put to death? I understand “an eye for an eye”, but we can rarely give someone a punishment that is equal to the crime they committed.
2. Can you refute them with quality evidence?
“It is fallacy to argue that the death penalty should be abolished because an innocent person might die”, this is an ambiguous phrase because the author is stating both side but does not have concrete evidence for either side. His response “I’m not the one who personally killed your son, your father, your brother. I am innocent”, plays both sides with no concrete evidence of him being innocent at all. Him saying “im am not one who personally killed” is an ambiguous statement in itself, he’s saying he is innocent but he’s not saying he’s not totally innocent. It is almost sounds like he was there but no evidence was stated. You can not refute the quality because there is not enough evidence to conclude these phrases. The article does not go into enough detail to show evidence for which side of the death penalty to agree on an what the fine details of the case that were not discussed.
Not a lot to say here. I think we all agree that there were many ambiguous statements that could be easily refuted with good evidence. While working on this assignment, I found myself thinking about how often I use ambiguous statements and why. When I really thought about it – I realized that I usually “felt” that my statement was true and could be proven – I just didn’t have the time or desire to find the data to really back it up. At work, I’ve been trying to do a better job of “managing up”…delivering information to my boss about what’s happening in the org, issues, risks, etc. I often complain about issues, but I don’t collect a lot of data to really show evidence that the problem exists. I need to do a better job at that.