Update: 2012-11-24 05:21 AM +0630



by Nguyễn Thị Vân Lam, Vinh University (Ministry of Education and Training, Vietnam), Vietnam.
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Note: The paper is based on a paper of the same name written by Nguyễn Thị Vân Lam, Vinh University (Ministry of Education and Training, Vietnam) , Research Paper at the University Level, Code: 2006-08-06, Duration 01/01/2006 - 30/11/2006.


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Part I . Introduction
1. Justification of the Study
2. Aims and Objectives of the Study
3. Methods of the Study
4. Scope of the Study
5. Format of the Study

Part II. Contents

Chapter 1. Theoretical Background
1.1. English Words: Definitions
1.2. Grammatical Features of the English Words
1.3. Word-meaning in English
1.3.1. Descriptive Meaning
1.3.2. Non-descriptive Meaning
1.3.3. Polysemy and Homonymy
1.4. Ambiguity and Lexical Ambiguity in English

Chapter 2. Different Sources of Lexical Ambiguity in English
2.1. Introduction
2.2. Different Sources of Lexical Ambiguity in English
2.2.1. Polysemy and Homonymy Polysemy Homonymy
2.2.2. Obscure Reference
2.2.3. Extension and Intension

Chapter 3. Some Ways of Disambiguiating
3.1. Introduction
3.2. Contextualizing
3.3. Providing Grammatical Environment

Part III Conclusion
1. Recapitulation and Implications
2. Suggestions for Further Studies


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Abstract: Lexical ambiguity is thought to be one of the linguistic phenomena that may give rise to misunderstanding or failure in communication. Aware of this fact, the author makes efforts to study words, the phenomenon of lexical ambiguity in the English language with a view to clarifying this phenomenon; its different sources including homonymy, polysemy, obscure reference, intension and extension; and some ways of disambiguating. The study is expected to bring in good results to learners or communicators of English in their communication. 

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Part I   Introduction


1. Justification of the Study

English vocabulary plays an important role in communication, creating great mutual understanding among people from different countries. It is, however, ambiguity in English, especially lexical ambiguity, which sometimes causes misunderstanding and embarrassing situations between them. In order to help to restrict the situations, the author holds that a study on lexical ambiguity in the English language would be one of the keys to the problem.

Also, as in any language in the world, the vocabulary of English consists of several hundred thousand words with multiple meanings, so without a good knowledge about the ambiguity in words, communication in English just could not occur in a meaningful way, resulting in a failure in communication. The author argues that the mastering of the sources of lexical ambiguity in English together with the ways of disambiguating helps to make the communication successful. In addition, a good understanding of lexical ambiguity in the English language is essential for the teaching and learning of English as a foreign language (EFL). Similarly, in translation from English into Vietnamese or vice versa, a comprehensive knowledge of lexical ambiguity can help create equivalence in the translation.

As a teacher and a researcher of English, the author has conducted the study entitled “Lexical Ambiguity in the English Language” with a view to providing a comprehensive picture of different sources of lexical ambiguity in English and some ways of disambiguating. Hopefully, the study may help the communicators, learners, teachers, and translators of English avoid failure but achieve success in communication and in teaching and learning as well as in translation.

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2. Aims and Objectives of the Study

For the reasons mentioned above, the study aims to:

• Explore the different sources of lexical ambiguity and some ways of disambiguating in the English language.

To fully achieve the aim, the study should answer the following questions:

• What is lexical ambiguity?

• What are the sources of lexical ambiguity and some ways of disambiguating in English?

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3. Methods of the Study

For the sake of EFL teaching / learning and translation, as this study is carried out, the author has applied the two methods: quantitative and qualitative. By virtue of the quantitative method, the author has collected data for the study including English examples of phrases and sentences containing lexical ambiguity. The qualitative method is employed to describe and analyze the data of the study.

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4. Scope of the Study

For ambiguity in the English language is to some extent related to grammar, it is impossible for the author to carry out an exhaustive study on all types of ambiguity. It is, however, the author’s purpose to conduct a research on the ambiguity in terms of lexical items.

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5. Format of the Study

The study consists of three parts.

Part I, entitled “Introduction” outlines the background of the study.

Part II, with the title of “Investigation”, comprises three chapters. Chapter 1, as is implied by the title “Theoretical Background”, discusses the theoretical notions necessary for and relevant to the scope of the study, covering a series of concepts ranging from English words, grammatical features of English words, word-meaning, ambiguity and lexical ambiguity in English. Chapter 2 – “Different Sources of Lexical Ambiguity in English”  is concerned with the different sources of lexical ambiguity in the English language. In the next chapter “Some Ways of Disambiguating”, the author deals with how to resolve lexical ambiguity in English.

Part III is “Conclusion”, which provides the recapitulation and implications of the study as well as suggestions for further studies. The study ends with the “References”.

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Part II   Contents


Chapter 1   Theoretical Background

In this chapter, we shall discuss the issues on English words, grammatical features of words, word-meaning, ambiguity and lexical ambiguity in English.

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1.1. English Words: Definition

There have been many definitions of a word in different approaches proposed by famous linguists and they all are not satisfactory, posing one problem or two for English. One way of defining the word is in the orthographic approach. A word is defined as any sequence of letters which is bound on either side by a space. Bloomfield (1933, p. 178, quoted in Palmer, 1981, p. 33) thought of the word as the ‘minimum free form’, the smallest form that may occur in isolation. In the grammatical approach, words are defined as having the criteria of “positional mobility” and “internal stability” (Singleton, 2000, p. 9). That is words are not fixed in sentences and within words, the order of smaller elements remain consistent and no element can be added. Semantically, words are assumed to be basic units of meaning. There are admittedly individual units of meaning which are expressed in single, simple words. Palmer (1981, p. 32) states that “not all words have the same kind of meaning as others; some seem to have little or none”.

It is taken as axiomatic that deciding on an accurate definition of the word is very difficult. Lyons (1977, 1995) and many other linguists have used the terms ‘word-form’, ‘lexeme’, or ‘lexical item’ when dealing with words. In Lyons (1977, p. 18), words defined orthographically are word-forms and italics is used for the citation of word-forms; thus, talk, talks, talking and talked are different word-forms of the word ‘talk’. The term ‘lexeme’ refers to all the units of the vocabulary of a language, listed and defined in a dictionary. The citation-forms of lexemes are enclosed in single quotation-marks, e.g. ‘happy’, ‘bring’, etc. A lexeme is the abstract unit which is realized by different word-forms. A lexeme can be either a word expression (word-lexeme) with its form and meaning such as ‘talk’, which is realized by different word-forms: talk, talks, talking, talked, etc., or a phrasal expression (phrasal lexeme) as an idiom such as ‘on cloud nine’, ‘walk on air’, etc. Although the definitions of words presented above are problematic, they are, to some extent, of great value in providing characteristics of the words themselves. The terms ‘word-form’, ‘lexeme’, ‘lexical item’, ‘word’ (as word-lexeme), ‘idioms’ (as phrasal-lexeme) are used in the study. In the next section, we shall discuss one of the characteristics of word-lexemes.

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1.2. Grammatical Features of English Words

One of the grammatical features of English words is that they belong to different classes. The classification of words has undergone some change so far. Traditional grammars of English standardly distinguish eight parts of speech: noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction, and interjection (Huddleston, 1984, p. 90). In Quirk et. al. (1972, p. 45), words are also classified into two groups: ‘open-class items’ consisting of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs and ‘closed-system items’ with articles, demonstratives, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections for similar reasons to Huddleston’s. The classification of words into open- and closed-classes in many modern grammars correlates with Lyons’s classification of English word-forms into two classes of full word-forms and empty word-forms (Lyons, 1995). Full word-forms are forms of the major parts of speech such as nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs white empty word-forms belong to a wide variety of classes such as articles, conjunctions, interjections, prepositions and certain pronouns and adverbs.

Another grammatical feature of words is that words are made up of morphemes and can form other new words. As Bloomfield (1933, quoted in Palmer, 1981, p. 33) suggested, the morpheme is an element smaller than words, a unit of meaning. Most linguists consider morphemes as the smallest meaningful units and the basic grammatical units of a language. Free morphemes, one of the two types of morphemes, can occur independently as a word, e.g. ‘cheer’, ‘joy’, etc. They can sometimes be called roots or stems, especially when combining with other morphemes. The other type, bound morphemes, by contrast, cannot normally stand alone, but are typically attached to free morphemes, e.g. un-, -ly, -s. They are affixes, which can be added before roots (prefixes) or after roots (suffixes). With these types of morphemes, words can be most commonly formed by means of derivation – adding the affixes to the root, back-formation – reducing the affixes and compounding – combining at least at least two roots. (Yule (1985, p. 67) and Jackson and Amvela (2000, p. 86))

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1.3. Word-meaning in English

Word-meaning here is treated as the meaning of a lexeme. There are two types of meaning: grammatical and lexical meaning. Lyons (1995, p. 52) states that a lexeme may have different word-forms and these word-forms will generally differ in meaning: their grammatical meaning – the meaning in terms of grammar. For example, the lexeme ‘bank’ has two forms bank and banks, which differ in respect of their grammatical meaning, in that one is the singular form (of a noun of a particular class) and the other is plural form (of a noun of a particular class).

However, Zgusta (1971, p. 61, quoted in Baker, 1992, p.12) claims that it is just the lexical meaning which is “the most outstanding individual of the word that makes it different from any other word”. The lexical meaning of a word may be thought of as the specific value it has in a particular language system, and the ‘personality’ it acquires through usage within that system. It is not homogenous since it involves the three kinds of meaning signaled by language: descriptive, social and expressive. The lexical meaning of a lexeme, therefore, may be analyzed into descriptive and non-descriptive meaning, which are to be discussed in the following sections.


1.3.1. Descriptive Meaning

The descriptive meaning of a lexeme (sometimes called conceptual, cognitive or propositional meaning) is widely assumed to be the central factor in linguistic communication. It consists of denotation and sense. According to Lyons (1977, p. 207), by the denotation of a lexeme is meant “the relationship that holds between that lexeme and persons, things, places, properties, processes and activities external to the language-system.” A lexeme, in general, denoted a class of entities in the world. For example, the lexeme ‘shirt’ denotes a class of pieces of clothing worn on the upper part of the body; the lexeme ‘student’ denotes all the students in the world; and the lexeme ‘happy’ denotes the property of being happy. Denotation, thus, is invariant and context-independent.

Lyons makes a distinction between denotation and reference. He defines reference as the relationship that holds between a language expression such as this shirt or that student and what that expression refers to on particular occasions of its utterance. The expression this shirt may refer to one shirt or another depending on who utters the expression. Reference is, consequently, utterance-dependent. Lexemes do not have reference, but may be used as components of referring expressions in particular contexts of utterance.

Some authors, however, do not distinguish denotation and reference. They consider the denotation and reference of a language expression are the same. Allan (quoted in Bright, 1995, p. 410) argues that “the denotation of a language expression is what a speaker or writer uses it to mean on the world evoked by a text in which the word appears”. The denotation or reference of ‘my car’and ‘yesterday’ in the sentence:

(1) I totaled my car yesterday

depends on who makes the utterance (which distinguishes his or her car) and when (which dates yesterday).

Lyons also makes a distinction between denotation and sense.  Unlike denotation, sense is defined to “hold between the words and expressions of a single language” (1977, p. 206). The sense of a lexeme is a set or a network of the relations between that lexeme and other lexemes or expressions of the same language. Such relations are called sense-relations, which is wholly internal to the language-system. Denotation and sense are related to each other: we would not know the one without having some knowledge of the other. They can be applied to a lexeme or a larger expression. The denotation and sense of a composite expression is “a compositional function of the denotation and sense of its component parts” (Lyons, 1995, p. 81). For example, the lexeme ‘shirt’, apart from its denotation, is also related, in various ways, to other lexemes: ‘clothing’, ‘clothes’, ‘blouse’, etc.; and the composite expression ‘a yellow shirt’ has its denotation and sense, which combines the denotation and sense of ‘yellow’ and ‘shirt’.


1.3.2. Non-descriptive Meaning

The non-descriptive meaning of a lexeme (sometimes called connotation, affective, associative or expressive meaning), by contrast, provides additional effects to its central meaning. In Geerearts (quoted in Asher, 1994, p. 2154), connotation refers to “all types of non-denotational meaning as a whole” including emotive, stylistic, discursive and evocative meaning. In Jeffries (1998, pp.109-144), connotation is used to refer to the expressive and evoked meaning discussed in Cruse (1986). It is obvious that there is no clear-cut classification of non-descriptive meaning of a lexeme. Part of the connotation of a lexeme is its expressive meaning, (sometimes called emotive, attitudinal, or affective meaning), which communicates the speakers’ evaluation or their attitudes. For example, ‘complain’ and ‘whine’ have the same descriptive meaning, but the latter communicates the speaker’s annoyance when complaining while the former does not.

The connotation of a lexeme is its evoked meaning (stylistic colouring in other linguists’ term), which is “a consequence of the existence of different dialects and registers within a language” (Cruse, 1986, p. 282). Dialects are varieties of language which have currency within a specific community or group of speakers. Dialectal variation can be classified as geographical (e.g. Scottish dialect: ‘loch’, American English: ‘fall’ as opposed to British English: ‘autumn’), temporal (e.g. words used by members of different age groups within a community or words used at different periods in the history of language), and social (words used by members of different social classes).

While dialects are varieties of language associated with different characteristics of users (e.g. age, class and regional affiliation), registers are varieties of language that a single speaker considers appropriate to a specific situation which may be formal or informal. ‘Bicycle’ and ‘bike’, for instance, have the same descriptive meaning, but the former is a neutral word while the latter is an informal one, thus being used in less formal circumstances than the former. Apart from this, Geerearts (quoted in Asher, 1994, p. 2155) argues that part of the connotation of the lexeme is ‘evocative meaning’, which is different from the evoked meaning used by Cruse (1986). It is the associations connected with a word, e.g. a word such as ‘Christmas’, which could call up images of Christmas trees, family gatherings, presents and so on.

Words have both descriptive meaning – denotation and sense, and their connotation – expressive and evoked meaning. It is because of many descriptive meanings occurring in a word that the word has the characteristic of polysemy or homonymy and because of its connotation, the word is distinct from others.


1.3.3. Polysemy and Homonymy

As is stated in Palmer (1981, p. 100), not only do different lexemes have different senses; it is also the case that the same lexeme may have a set of senses. This is polysemy and such a lexeme is polysemous. Polysemy is a property of single lexemes, which is characteristic of most lexemes in English. For example, the noun ‘neck’ is treated in standard English dictionaries as a single lexeme with several distinguishable senses: “part of the body”, “part of bottle”, “part of a shirt or other garment”, etc.. The lexeme ‘neck’ is thus polysemous. Palmer (1981, p. 102) and Lyons (1981, p. 147) discuss the two criteria of etymology and the relatedness of meaning.

According to Leech (1974, p. 228), polysemy (one word having two or more senses) is recognized if the senses concerned are related in two ways: historically and psychologically, which do not necessarily coincide. Two senses are historically related: they are traced back from the same source or one sense is derived from the other; and two senses are psychologically related: they are intuitively felt to be related, and are assumed to be “different uses of the same word” by present-day users of the language. These are the two criteria used to distinguish polysemy from homonymy – the case where two or more words have the same pronunciation and/or spelling. However, there are cases in which the senses are related historically, but not psychologically and vice versa, which raises the problem for the distinction.

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1.4. Ambiguity and Lexical Ambiguity in English

Ambiguity, much discussed in semantics, describes the linguistic phenomenon whereby expressions are potentially understood in two or more ways: an ambiguous expression has more than one interpretation in its context. The fact is that the lexicon of English is particularly rich in multiple meaning because of its varied history: the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, records 154 sense divisions under the word ‘set’. What is remarkable is that such a “heavy” semantic load, which applies similarly to a large number of common core lexical items, can be tolerated in everyday usage without ambiguity inevitably occurring.

There are two types of ambiguity: structural and lexical ambiguity. When a sentence can be interpreted in more than one way, it is structurally ambiguous, as exemplified in the following sentence (Hurford & Heasley, 1983, p. 121):

(2) Visiting relatives can be boring,

which can be interpreted in two ways:

(3) It can be boring to visit relatives.

(4) Relatives who are visiting can be boring.

Similarly, a word is ambiguous when it has two or more interpretations due to the fact that two or more lexical meanings are associated with it. This lexical ambiguity is traditionally illustrated with the word ‘bank’ which may mean either as “a business establishment in which money is kept for saving or commercial purposes or is invested, supplied for loans, or exchanged” or “the slope of land adjoining a body of water, especially adjoining a river, lake, or channel”. The sentences:

(5) I went to the bank,
[Click to go back to where you were: 05-b1]

(6) We finally reached the bank,

(7) I was on my way to the bank,

contain the ambiguous word ‘bank’, thus they are lexically ambiguous.

Hurford and Heasley (1983, p. 128) point out that lexical ambiguity is the one which results from the ambiguity of a word, as exemplified in:

(8) The captain corrected the list.

The sentence is lexically ambiguous due to the two meanings of ‘list’ as either “the inventory” or “the tilt”.

According to Fromkin et al (1983, p. 207), lexical ambiguity is created by a word which can be understood in more than one way. For example, the sentence:

(9) She cannot bear children,
[Click to go back to where you were: 09-b1

may be understood to mean either “She cannot tolerate children” or “She is unable to give birth to children”. It is the word ‘bear’ with one form and two different meanings that gives rise to the lexical ambiguity in the sentence (9).

The examples above prove that lexical ambiguity is a complicated problem to cope with, especially for English learners, whose vocabulary and knowledge of interpretation is limited.

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Chapter 2   Different Sources of Lexical Ambiguity in English


2.1. Introduction

In this chapter, we shall deal with different sources of lexical ambiguity in English including polysemy, homonymy, obscure references, intension and extension.

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2.2. Different Sources of Lexical Ambiguity in English


2.2.1. Polysemy and Homonymy

What is first discussed in this section is the main sources of lexical ambiguity: homonymy and polysemy. They are closely related and often treated together because on face value, what we see is that various meanings are associated with the same forms. They are distinguished from one another in terms of semantic relatedness. If different meanings associated with one form are related in some way, they constitute a polysemantic word; and if these meanings are perceived as unrelated, they are treated as homonyms. Polysemy

Polysemy is undeniably a main cause of lexical ambiguity. A case of polysemy is, according to Hurford and Heasley (1983, p. 123), the one where a word has two more closely related senses. ‘Mouth’ (of a river versus of an animal) is an example of polysemy as the two senses are clearly related by the concepts of an opening from the interior of some solid mass to the outside, and of a place of issue at the end of some long narrow channel. Another example of polysemy is ‘guard’ meaning either “a person who guards, sentinel” or “solid protective shield, e.g. round machinery” for both meanings contain the concept of protection against danger.

Polysemy is, however, distinguished from homonymy not only according to the criterion of relatedness in meaning but also to that of etymology. The problem arising is, therefore, to decide when we have polysemy and when we have homonymy as in Palmer (1981, p.102). When several words have the same forms from the same origin, but unrelated meanings, should they be treated as homonyms or polysemous words? For example, ‘pupil’ meaning “a person, especially a child who is being taught” and ‘pupil’ meaning “the small back round opening in the middle of the coloured part of the eye”; or the ‘sole’ of a shoe and the fish ‘sole’, historically are from the sane origin and as such are examples of polysemy.

Yet, in the language of today, they are pairs of unrelated words, i.e., homonyms. Dictionaries, as in Jackson and Amvela (2000, p. 61), have to decide whether a particular item is to be handled in terms of polysemy or   homonymy because a polysemous word will be treated as a single entry, while a homonymous one will have a separate entry. It is obvious that whether the meaning of words are related or unrelated, the multiple meanings of words often give rise to lexical ambiguity. The sentence:

(10) The bachelor finally died

is lexically ambiguous due to the multiple meanings of ‘bachelor’ including (a) “a man who has never  married”, (b) “a young knight serving under the banner of another”, (c) “someone with a first degree”, and (d) “a young male unmated fur seal during the mating season”.

In addition, a word may have both a “literal” meaning and one or more “transferred” meaning, which is the cause of the multiplicity of meaning or a polysemous word; the result is thus lexical ambiguity. One kind of transference of meaning is metonymy, the transference of meaning from one object to another based on the association of contiguity of notions, i.e. instead of the name of one object or notion, we use the name of another because these objects are associated and closely related: ‘The kettle boils’ instead of ‘The water in the kettle boils’, ‘crown’ instead of ‘monarchy’.

According to Nguyen Hoa (2004, p. 113), the main different cases of metonymy are: the name of container used instead of the thing container, e.g., ‘to drink a glass’; names of past of human body used as symbols, e.g., ‘to have a good eye’, ‘kind heart’; the concrete used instead of abstract, e.g., ‘from the cradle to the grave’; the material used for the things made of it, e.g., ‘canvass’, ‘glass’; the name of authors instead of their works, e.g., ‘Shakespeare’, ‘Picasso’; and the part instead of the whole and vice versa, e.g., ‘roof’ for ‘house’ or ‘bike’ for the part of a bike in ‘to repair a bike’.  Another basic kind of transference of meaning is metaphor, the transference from one object to another based on the association of similarity between these two objects, i.e., we call one object by the name of another because we compare these objects and find some common features between them. For example, a cunning person is commonly referred to as a fox. As a result, the following sentence is lexically ambiguous:

(11) He is a fox.

Of all kinds of transference of meaning, metaphor is the most familiar. The term “metaphor” refers to cases where a word appears to have both a “literal” and a “transferred” meaning, which are easily and clearly identified. The easy and clear identification of meaning in a case of metaphor is its distinctive feature while in other cases of transference, it is not always clear which should be considered literal and which transferred. To illustrate, we assume that words such as ‘hand’, ‘foot’, ‘face’ and ‘eye’ apply first to the body from which they deserve their literal meanings but in other cases such as ‘hand of clock’, ‘foot of the mountain’, ‘face of a clock’ and ‘eyes of a needle’, they have their transferred meanings.

In Nguyen Hoa (2004, p. 108), metaphor is the transference of meaning based on the similarity of shape, e.g., ‘lip’ (of a person vs. of a jug); position, e.g., ‘foot’ (of a person vs. of the mountain); movement, e.g., ‘to worm’ (vs. a ‘worm’); function, e.g., ‘finger’ (of a person vs. of an instrument); quality, e.g., ‘bee’ (a kind of insect vs. a hardworking person); colour, e.g., ‘orange’ (the colour of an orange), ‘rose’ (the colour of a rose); and size, e.g., ‘elephantine’ (like an elephant).

Fromkin et al (1983, p.227) state that in English, metaphor is a violation of semantic rules to create figurative meanings. The sentence:

(12) Walls have ears

is an illustration for the breaking of semantic rules. In other words, it is certainly anomalous. It can, however, be interpreted as meaning “you can be overheard even when you think nobody is listening”. It is consequently ambiguous in some sense.

Transferred meaning also appears in idioms which may result in lexical ambiguity. Idioms may, in Cruse (1986, p.37), be a lexical complex consisting of more than one lexical constituent which is semantically simple – a single minimal semantic constituent. Most of them are homophonous with grammatically well-formed transparent expressions whose meanings are, non-idiomatic or literal, inferred from the meanings of the morphemes constructed. Idioms may, therefore, be interpreted to mean non-idiomatically (literally) or idiomatically (figuratively). In the sentence:

(13) There is a skeleton in our closet.
         (Kreidler, 1998, p. 56)

‘skeleton in the closet’ can be understood either to mean non-idiomatically (literally) as “a structure consisting of the bones in human or animal body in a closet” or to mean idiomatically (figuratively) as “an unfortunate event that is kept a family secret”. Similarly, if someone ‘hits the sack’, they could be engaged in “striking a large bag for storing or carrying things” (non-idiomatic meaning) or they could be “going to bed” (idiomatic meanings) (Jackson and Amvela, 2000, p. 67)

Transference of meaning, it is obvious, brings about the multiple meanings of the words or constitutes polysemy, thus causing lexical ambiguity. Homonymy

Homonyms are traditionally defined as different words with the same forms. In Lyons (1995, p.55), homonyms are classified into absolute and partial ones. The absolute homonyms will satisfy the three conditions of (a) unrelatedness in meaning, (b) identity of all their forms, and (c) grammatical equivalence of their identical forms. The two words ‘bank’ with two different meanings of either “a business establishment in which money is kept for saving or commercial purposes or is invested, supplied for loans, or exchanged” or “the slope of land adjoining a body of water, especially adjoining a river, lake, or channel” is a good illustration of absolute homonyms. Absolute homonymy, obviously, creates the ambiguity in the sentences (5), (6) and (7).

Partial homonyms are those with one minimally identical form and one or two, but not all the above three conditions of absolute homonyms satisfied. For example, the verbs ‘find’ and ‘found’ share the word-form found but not find, finding, etc., or found, founding, etc., and as a form of ‘find’, found is not grammatically equivalent to found as a form of ‘found’. These two words ‘found’ result in lexical ambiguity in:

(14) They found hospitals and charitable institutions.
          [Go back to where you came from: 14-b1

‘Found’ in this sentence might be understood to mean “discover” or “establish”.

The two kinds of partial homonyms – homophones (words identical in pronunciation only) and homographs (those identical in spelling only)  - may also give rise to lexical ambiguity in case they have the same lexical categories. Grammatically equivalent homophones may cause ambiguity in spoken English, as is exemplified in the utterance:

(15) My brother likes sweets/ suites.

It is lexically ambiguous because sweets and suites are the plural forms of the two different words ‘sweet’ and ‘suite’, respectively. These forms have the same pronunciation /swi:ts/ but different meanings: ‘sweet’ meaning “a small piece of sweet food made of sugar or chocolate, etc.” and ‘suite’ meaning “a set of matching furniture for a room”. They are homophones and nouns.

Grammatically equivalent homographs, meanwhile, may bring about the ambiguity in written English. An example to illustrate is the word ‘leads’ in:

(16) They provided those leads.

Leads is the plural form of ‘lead’. ‘Lead’, pronounced as /li:d/ with the meaning “a guiding suggestion or example”, “a clue” or “a length of rope, leather, etc. fastened to an animal, usually a dog to control it”, is a homograph of ‘lead’, pronounced as /led/ with the meaning “a thin stick of graphite used in pencils”.

It is important to note that when homonyms can occur in the same position in utterances, the result is lexical ambiguity. However, quite often, when homonyms belong to different lexical categories, they do not give rise to the ambiguity. For instance, right  /rait/ meaning “a morally just or legal claim” is a noun while right  /rait/ meaning “properly or correctly” is an adverb; tear  /tiə/ meaning “a drop of salty liquid that flows from the eye” is a noun; tear /teə/ meaning “to pull apart or into pieces by force” is a verb; seen  /si:n/ is a form of the verb “see”; scene /si:n/ is an unrelated noun. In these cases, absolute homonyms, homographs and homophones are not the cause of the ambiguity.

Interestingly enough, homonyms, though creating ambiguity when in the same position in utterances, are good candidates for humour. The following passage is an example:

(17)  “Mine is a long and sad tale”, said the Mouse, turning to Alice, and sighing.

“It is a long tail, certainly”, said Alice looking with wonder at the Mouse’s tail, “but why do you call it  sad?”
           (Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland quoted in Fromkin et al, 1983, p.207)


2.2.2 Obscure Reference

Lexical ambiguity, as mentioned above, results from ambiguous words which may be interpreted in more than one way. Referential properties should, therefore, be taken into account when lexical ambiguity is under discussion. A word may have different meanings in different contexts and refers to a different entity in each context. It is not easy to determine the referent in opaque contexts, however. In other words, the referent may be vague in these contexts; lexical ambiguity consequently occurs.

The first case of obscure references resulting in the ambiguity is an indefinite referring expressions which may be specific or not, for example:

(18) I wanted to buy a newspaper.
          [Click to go back to where you were: 18b1, 18b2]

Here in an opaque context ‘a newspaper’ may refer to a specific newspaper or some newspaper.

Another case is anaphora which is unclear because a personal pronoun ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’ or ‘they’ can be linked to either of two referring expressions as in:

(19) Jack told Ralph that a visitor was waiting for him.

Him’ here may refer to either “Jack” or “Ralph”.

One more case is the pronoun ‘you’ used generically or specifically:

(20) If you want to get ahead, you have to work hard.

'You’ in this sentence may be interpreted to refer to the addressee or this sentence is a general platitude. Also, the case of a noun phrase with “every” which can have distributed or collected reference may result in lexical ambiguity. The sentence:

(21) I am buying a drink for everybody here.

may be understood to mean:

(21.a) I am buying one drink for all.
(21.b) I am buying one drink for each.


2.2.3. Extension and Intension

Other sources of lexical ambiguity are extension and intension. The extension of an expression is the set of entities that expression denotes while the intension is the set of properties shared by all members of the extension. An example to illustrate is that the extension of ‘cow’ is the set of all the cows in the world, but its intension is the property that is described as “bovine” (Palmer, 1981, p. 190).

Knowing the meaning of an expression, however, cannot be equivalent to knowing its extension, for this would mean that we could not know the meaning of ‘cow’ if we did not know all the cows in the world. Failure to make the distinction between extensions and intensions can lead to paradoxes. It is at the center of the problem concerning “the morning star” and “the evening star”. The extension of these two expressions is the same (Venus) but their intensions are different. Without knowing the correct extensions of the expression, it was perfectly possible for people not to know that the morning star and the evening star were the same.

In other cases, the extension can change while the intension remains the same (Kreidler, 1998, p. 133). The extension of the referring expression ‘the capital of Australia’ is a single item, the city of Canberra. The intension of the same expression is “city in which the national government of Australia is located”. If the capital should be moved at some future time to another city, the extension changes but the intension remains the same. ‘The Mayor of Chicago’ or ‘the Prime Minister of Great Britain’ always has the same intension but the extension of each of these changes from time to time.

With different readings, it is the extension and intension of an expression that cause the ambiguity. For example, in the sentence:

(22) John believes that Smith’s murderer is insane,
(Palmer, 1981, p. 192)

the extension of ‘Smith’s murderer’ is either someone, a certain person e.g., Jones, who actually murdered Smith, or to someone else, e.g., Black, who is believed to have murdered Smith. The intension is, meanwhile, the person who murdered Smith, whoever he may be (and it may not be known who he is). As a result, there is at least triple ambiguity in the sentence (18). In fact, the context here is opaque since in this context, the truth is not preserved when certain types of co-referential expressions are substituted for one another. In the situation in which Smith’s murderer is Jones, it will not necessarily follow that, if “John believes that Smith’s murderer is insane” is true, “John believes that Jones is insane” is true. For obviously if John does not know that Smith’s murderer is Jones, he may believe that Smith’s murderer is insane without necessarily believing that Jones is insane. Thus, since Smith’s murderer and Jones are the same person, ‘Smith’s murderer’ and ‘Jones’ are co-referential expressions, but they cannot be substituted in the first pair of sentences with truth preservation.

There is also ambiguity in:

(23) Bill is looking for the Dean,

since this means either that Bill is looking for Professor Green who is actually the Dean, or that he is looking for the person, whoever it may be, who is the Dean. It would appear that this is a matter of the extension and intension of the expression ‘the Dean’. Nevertheless, it may not be irrelevant that ‘look for’ also seems to provide opaque contexts. With expressions like ‘look for’ there is a very similar ambiguity when we have indefinite rather than definite expressions. Therefore, the sentence:

(24) I am looking for a pencil

may mean either “I am looking for a particular pencil” or that “any pencil will do”. The difference here is usually treated in linguistics in terms of the specific and non-specific/ generic use of the indefinite expressions, of which the grammatical words – those in the closed-item class – are a component. Obviously, the extensional and intensional meanings of expressions are the origin of ambiguity in communication.

To summarize, there are different sources of lexical ambiguity in English: homonymy, polysemy, obscure references, and extension and intension. In order to communicate well in English, learners or communicators of English should master these sources and avoid creating ambiguity which may result in misunderstanding or communication breakdown. In the next chapter we shall take some ways of disambiguating in consideration.

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Chapter 3  Some Ways of Disambiguating


3.1. Introduction

Lexical ambiguity is caused by the words which have more than one reading. The ambiguity is, of course, not likely to be sustained in a longer discourse than an utterance. However, when it occurs, it may bring about confusion and even misunderstanding. It is, therefore, necessary to avoid creating the lexical ambiguity. In this chapter we are to deal with two ways of disambiguating such as contextualizing and providing grammatical environment.

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3.2. Contextualizing

One way of word disambiguating is to provide additional contexts or any pieces of information to the ambiguous word of sentence. The context includes in­formation contained within the text or discourse in which the word appears, to­gether with extra-linguistic information about the text.

As is stated in Leech (1974, p.77), context may eliminate certain ambiguities or multiple meanings in the message; and it may indicate the referents of certain types of words we call deitic (‘this’, ‘that’, ‘here’, ‘there’, ‘now’, ‘then’, etc.) and of other expressions of definite meaning (such as ‘John’, ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘he’, ‘it’, ‘the man’).

As is presented above, the sentence (10) is lexically ambiguous because ‘bachelor’ is polysemous. Thus, it is with a piece of information ‘old’ that the sentence (10) can be disambiguated.

(10 a) The old bachelor finally died.

The ‘old bachelor’ cannot refer to fur seals because such bachelors are by definition young. In this case, together with the information ‘old’, the distinctive features of each meaning of ‘bachelor’ may help to disambiguate the sentence.

The sentence (13) contains lexical ambiguity on account of transferred meaning. If we add  “which makes many people frightened”, ‘skeleton in the closet’ can only be understood to mean non-idiomatically (literally) as “a structure consisting of the bones in human or animal body in a closet”:

(13a) There is a skeleton in our closet which makes many people frightened.

However if we add “so we are very sad”, ‘skeleton in the closet’ can be understood to mean idiomatically (figuratively) as “an unfortunate event that is kept a family secret”.

(13b) There is a skeleton in our closet, so we are very sad.

Context can be used to resolve the lexical ambiguity caused by homonymy. For example, the sentence (5) is lexically ambiguous due to the meaning of the homonym of ‘bank’. The ambiguity will disappear if we add “but it was closed” to (5). In this case, ‘bank’ only means “financial institution”. By adding “and started fishing” to the sentence (6), the ‘bank’ can only be understood to mean “side of a river”. Similarly, the sentence (9) is disambiguated either with the addition of “if they are noisy”, with which ‘bear’ means “tolerate”, or with the addition of “because she is infertile”, ‘bear’ meaning “be unable to give birth to children”.

With regard to obscure reference, context also works well in disambiguating. The sentence (18) will not be ambiguous with the addition of either ‘but I couldn’t find it’, with which ‘a newspaper’ refers to a specific newspaper:

(18a) I wanted to buy a newspaper but I couldn’t find it.

or ‘but I couldn’t find one’, ‘a newspaper’, referring to some newspaper.

(18b) I wanted to buy a newspaper but I couldn’t find one.

Extra-linguistic context is of great importance in helping to avoid lexical ambiguity. The disambiguating role of context may, too, be illustrated by the simple sentence:

(21) Shall I put this on?

It makes a great difference to the understanding of this sentence to know whether the speaker is holding up (a) a portable radio; (b) a sweater, or (b) a lump of wood. The difference does not simply lie in the changing referent of “this”, but in the sense one attaches to “put…on”.

(a) = switch…on
(b) = put …on oneself
(c) = place…on top of (something else, such as a fire).

By means of pragmatic considerations, the meaning a speaker actually  expresses is identified as in:

(22) They’ve got that creamy duck on special at Forresters.
          (Kearns, 2000, p.271)

The phrase ‘that creamy duck’ is lexically ambiguous. For example, if Forresters is a restaurant, ‘that creamy duck’ refers to their special dish, roast duck in a spiced cream sauce. If Forresters is a fabric store, ‘that creamy duck’ refers to a cream-coloured strong cotton twill.

External knowledge sources, including lexical, encyclopedic, etc. resources, as well as hand-devised knowledge sources, can provide data useful to associate words with senses. As is discussed in chapter 2, lexical ambiguity may result in the extension and intension of an expression. An expression may have same extension but different intension or vice versa. Therefore, external knowledge sources do help in lexical disambiguation. For example, with some knowledge about Venus, we can understand the expressions of ‘the morning star’ and ‘the evening star’, which have the same extension but different intension. Also, we can disambiguate the expression with same intension but different extension by utilizing external knowledge. The sentence below is lexically ambiguous if the listener lacks external knowledge.

(25) The President of America was warmly welcomed in Vietnam because he was the first US president to visit Vietnam.

(26)The President of America attended the APEC summit in Vietnam.

With external knowledge about who was the first US president to visit Vietnam after the war, we can understand the sentence (25) is about Bill Clinton, but external knowledge about the APEC summit held in Vietnam in 2006, the expression ‘the President of America’ in the sentence (26) cannot refer to Bill Clinton but George W. Bush. The expression ‘the President of America’ has the same intension – the leader of America, but different extension due to the time changes.

To put in a nutshell, context makes great contributions to disambiguating lexical items, those belonging to both the closed and open word classes.

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3.3. Providing Grammatical Environment

It is also interesting to note that the grammatical environment can help to eliminate lexical ambiguity, especially the ambiguity resulting from partial homonymy (Lyons, 1995, p. 57). If have is inserted before found in the sentence (14), to yield:

(14.a) They have found hospitals and charitable institutions.

The ambiguity disappears as found here is the past participle of ‘find’ meaning “discover”.

(14.b) He found hospitals and charitable institutions.

Found here is the past form of ‘find’ meaning “discover”.

To be contrasted with (14) are, on the one hand,

(14.c) He founds hospitals and other charitable institutions,

and, on the other,

(14.d) He founded hospital and other charitable institutions,

founds in (14.c) and founded in (14.d) are forms of the verb ‘found’ meaning “establish”.

The ability to resolve lexical ambiguity of grammar can also be shown in the following example. The sentence:

(26) He lies all the time,

contains lexical ambiguity which is caused by the word ‘lie’ meaning either “to say something that ones knows is not true” or “to have or put one’s body in a flat or resting position on a surface”. The sentence will not ambiguous if we use the verb in the past simple tense. The verb ‘lie’ meaning “to say something that ones knows is not true” has the past form lied and when it means “to have or put one’s body in a flat or resting position on a surface”, its past form is lay.

In summary, lexical ambiguity in English can be eliminated by means of additional contexts or any pieces of information. Grammar can also help to disambiguate the lexically ambiguous sentence.

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1. Recapitulation and Implications

English vocabulary, rich in number and meaning, helps communicators of English communicate well in English. However, sometimes people fail to understand the information which the communicators convey and even sometimes misunderstand. The causes of misunderstanding and failure in  communication lie in lexical ambiguity, one main kind of ambiguity occurring in English words. The author has discussed in this paper English words, word-classes, word-formation, word-meaning and ambiguity as well as lexical ambiguity in English. The main sources of lexical ambiguity include polysemy, homonymy, obscure reference, and extension and intension. Some ways of disambiguating have also been dealt with. There are, however, not any separate ways of eliminating the lexical ambiguity caused by each source. Contexts or pieces of information can resolve the lexical ambiguity in most cases. In some other cases, grammar can be employed to disambiguate the lexical items.

Learners or communicators of English should, in my view, learn well about various causes of lexical ambiguity and ways of disambiguating so that they could not cause misunderstanding or failure in communication. In addition, the translators into and out of English should also understand the sources of lexical ambiguity and ways of disambiguating in order that they can avoid causing lexical ambiguity or failing to understand the information  conveyed.

However, we should, interestingly enough, note that lexical ambiguity is sometimes exploited for comic effects: common in jokes, riddles and advertisements, and in literary language. In these cases, the task of the readers or the listeners, or the translators is to resolve the ambiguity and arrive at an appropriate interpretation.

With great efforts, the author hopes to provide a basic knowledge about lexical ambiguity in the English language, which can help communicators of English avoid failure or misunderstanding in communication.

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2. Suggestions for Further Studies

This study has attempted to investigate the main sources of lexical ambiguity in the English language and some ways of disambiguating. However, due to the limitations and the requirements of the research, no attempt has been made to study lexical ambiguity exploited for comic effects: common in jokes, riddles and advertisements, and in literary language. We, therefore, have five suggestions for further research, which are sure to be very useful and interesting:

• A study on lexical ambiguity exploited for comic effects: common in jokes.

• A study on lexical ambiguity exploited for comic effects: common in riddles and advertisements.

• A study on lexical ambiguity in humourous newspaper headlines in English.

• A study on lexical ambiguity exploited for comic effects: common in literary language.

• Lexical ambiguity in English and Vietnamese: A contrastive analysis.

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