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Lexical and Semantic Ambiguity

One problem with attempting to identify different kinds of lexical and semantic ambiguity is that there is not a definitive consensus among commentators of how these terms should be defined. Semantic ambiguity has a fairly wide range of linguistic concern. Palmer discusses ambiguity as an attribute of the discipline of semantics in general. Semantic ambiguity, in Palmer's formulation, would refer to potentially multiple meanings of the "relations within language (sense) and relations between language and the world (reference)" (Palmer 914). In other words it would refer to a pattern or structure of meaning of a linguistic presentation, such as a sentence, a paragraph, a poem, a novel, a scene from a movie. The ambiguity is to be found in the sense relationships of the piece as a whole (or in parts of the whole).

It is difficult to discuss lexical and semantic ambiguity apart from pragmatics because so many commentaries bring in all three kinds in their discussions. For example, Poesio refers to semantic ambiguity as having simply a multiplicity of meanings (25), but he links it to the structure, or grammar, of a language in a way that assigns responsibility for the ambiguity to the deliberate intent of the one who originates but "underspecifies" what the language means or its rhetorical intent. Even where the rhetorical intent of the ambiguous expression is irrelevant, however, there may be a situation of perceived ambiguity, which has to do with the interpretation or "disambiguation" of the underspecification with a view toward arriving at meaning.

Semantic ambiguity is part of the specification of the grammar of a language; most, if not all, sentences are semantically ambiguous, but their ambiguity need not be noticed by listeners, and in fact it is typically discovered only by linguistic research. Perceived ambiguity, on the other hand, is a result of the interpretation process, that is defeasible in nature, and may therefore ...

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Lexical and Semantic Ambiguity. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 10:10, February 26, 2017, from