ambiguous message

an unclear message



Joe was in court fighting a ticket for parking his car in a restricted area. The judge asked him if he had anything to say in his defense. "They should not put up such ambiguous notices", said Joe. "It said, FINE FOR PARKING HERE."

Did you


1. Open to more than one interpretation: an ambiguous reply.
2. Doubtful or uncertain

From Latin ambiguus, uncertain, from ambigere, to go about : amb-, ambi-, around

am·bigu·ous·ly adv.
am·bigu·ous·ness n.

Synonyms: ambiguous, equivocal, obscure, recondite, abstruse, vague, cryptic, enigmatic. These adjectives all mean lacking clarity of meaning.

AMBIGUOUS indicates the presence of two or more possible meanings: Frustrated by ambiguous instructions, I was unable to assemble the toy.

Something EQUIVOCAL is unclear or misleading: “The polling had a complex and equivocal message for potential female candidates” (David S. Broder).

OBSCURE implies lack of clarity of expression: Some say that Kafka's style is obscure and complex.

RECONDITE and ABSTRUSE suggest the erudite obscurity of the scholar: “some recondite problem in historiography” (Walter Laqueur). The students avoided the professor's abstruse lectures.

What is VAGUE is expressed in indefinite form or reflects imprecision of thought: “Vague... forms of speech... have so long passed for mysteries of science” (John Locke).

CRYPTIC suggests a sometimes deliberately puzzling terseness: The new insurance policy is full of cryptic terms.

Something ENIGMATIC is mysterious and puzzling: The biography struggles to make sense of the artist's enigmatic life.

Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

Lewis Carroll had wonderful things to say about ambiguity:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - nothing more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."    

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