When something written or spoken is not quite clear, it may be either vague or ambiguous. Though the two words are used interchangeably at times, they have distinct meanings and connotations. Knowing how to differentiate between ambiguity and vagueness will help you understand the nature of what is being questioned or misunderstood. Practicing how to distinguish between these two concepts will help strengthen your critical thinking skills.
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Know that vagueness refers to something that is unclear. When a statement is vague, no clear definition or explanation can be used to describe the situation or occurrence. For example, an advertisement that simply states "Help Wanted" is vague because it doesn't specify what position is being offered. The vagueness arises because more than one meaning can logically exist. Vague statements or situations can lead to misunderstandings, because people can draw different conclusions based on the sparse information provided.
Understand that ambiguity exists when more than one meaning can be drawn from a word or sentiment in a statement. Newspaper headlines often suffer from ambiguity because they are brief. A headline such as "Bill Dies in House" is ambiguous -- it could refer to a man named Bill who has died in a house, or it could mean that a legislative bill did not pass the House of Representatives. Both meanings and theories make sense, but a reader would need more information to grasp the true meaning of what was being discussed. Typically, ambiguous statements can be understood once more information and facts are made available.
Practice reading statements and phrases to further grasp the difference between vagueness and ambiguity. Read newspaper headlines, blog postings and even e-mail subject lines to see which sentences and statements could be taken in two ways. Write down whether phrases are vague or ambiguous and then further investigate to see if you were correct. For example, if you saw the headline "Three-year veteran teacher indicted," read the story to determine whether the person is a teacher who has worked for three years or if the teacher served in the military for three years. if you can draw a definitive conclusion, the original statement was vague; if, after you review the rest of the information, the explanation remains unclear, the statement is ambiguous.
Tips and warnings
- Some statements are intended to be either vague or ambiguous to elicit further research or to allow one to draw his own conclusions.
- Do not use vague or ambiguous statements to throw someone off intentionally.
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