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There are several ways to classify ambiguity, Hurford and Hesley (1983: 128) classifying
ambiguity into two things namely lexical and structural ambiguity. While Kess (1992: 133),
categorizes ambiguity in three levels: lexical ambiguity, surface structure ambiguity and deep
structure ambiguity. On the other hand, Cruse (1986: 66) distinguishes four types of
ambiguity, namely pure syntactic ambiguity, quasi-syntactic ambiguity, lexico syntactic
ambiguity and pure lexical ambiguity. Of the four classifications, this can be simplified into
two categories: lexical and structural ambiguity.

Lexical and structural ambiguity refers to having two or more possible meanings or
meanings. In other words, when a sentence has more than one meaning, this is called
ambiguous. Lexical ambiguity is a result of the ambiguity of a word, which is more general.
See the following example: They went to the bank. The word 'bank' in this sentence has two
possible meanings namely 'river bank' or 'financial institution'. From the sentence itself, it is
very difficult to get the meaning of "bank". It takes the context of the sentence to correctly
understand the message being conveyed. In other words, the sentence is ambiguous because
of lack of information. The sentence will not be ambiguous if given additional information
such as, 'They went to the bank to save some money'.

In another type, structural ambiguity, occurs when the meaning of component words can be
combined in more than one way (O'Grady et al. 1997), for example: 'Nicole saw the people
with binoculars'. The sentence can be interpreted in two ways. One interpretation is 'Nicole
used binoculars to see the people'. In this sense, 'binoculars' modifies 'Nicole' (Nicole with
binoculars). Another meaning, 'The people had binoculars when Nicole saw them'. That
means that 'binoculars' modifies 'the people' (people with binoculars).

Sentences can be ambiguous because of many things, some of which are multiple meaning,
lack of information, and, incompleteness (Owen and Sweeney in Visser 2004: 1). To make
the sentence unambiguous and clear grammatical, it is necessary to have a kind of formal
signals that help the reader or listener to recognize the structure of the sentence (Taha, 1983).
Some signals include word function, inflection, affixation or affixing, word stress or stress,
point (or written word and punctuation division), and class members he said. These elements
will be used as a basis for discussing the construction of ambiguity below. The formal signal
is very important to understand and analyze an ambiguity in the sentence.

Here are some ambiguous sentences, which will be discussed in this paper: The girl who is a
book, Visiting relatives can be boring, I know more beautiful girls than Susanne, The teacher
thanked the table students who have given her some flowers.

In each case, the explanation includes the types of structural forms, reasons for ambiguity and
several possible ways to overcome them.


Of the many types of structural ambiguity, some of which were explored in this paper include
the type of structural ambiguity:
Type 1: VP + NP PP
Type 2: Gerund + VP
Type 3: VP NP + more ... than + NP
Type 4: VP + NP + PP1 + PP2
Type 5: NP + Adj. Clause

1. Type 1: VP NP + PP (prepositional phrase)

The sentence might mean 'The girl hit the boy using a book' or 'The boy is holding a book
when the girl hits him'. This type of ambiguity occurs because the prepositional phrase 'with a
book' can modify the two nouns 'the girl or the boy', depending on the angle of the word that
preceded it (antecedent). The sentence becomes ambiguous because it does not have clue to
the noun (noun) in which the Prepositional Phrase will modify. In other words, 'with a book'
can modify 'the boy or the girl'. This type of structural ambiguity is a result of a lack of
information in a sentence construction. If additional information is added to the sentence, the
sentence will become clear and unambiguous:

a. The girl hit the boy with a book. The book is broken.
b. The girl hit the boy with a book. The boy hurts.

In 'a', 'with a book' refers to 'the girl'; and 'b', 'the boy'. Here are some other similar examples
(prepositional phrases that can modify two noun phrases) are:

a. He hurts his sister with a knife

- Using his knife he hurts his sister
- His sister was holding a knife when he hurt her

b. Brian harms Jenny with a harmer

- Using a harmer, Brian harms Jenny
- Jenny is a holding hammer when Brian harms her

2. Type 2: Gerund + VP

Type or second type of ambiguity has a construction of a gerund sentence followed by a verb
(verb). The example sentence becomes ambiguous because 'visiting relatives' can be
understood in two ways: as 'compound noun' and 'noun phrase' which consists of 'modifier'
and 'noun'. In written language, it is very difficult to eliminate ambiguity, but in speaking,
this can be overcome by using an intonation pattern. If it is pronounced with the pattern / 2-3
1 ↑ / the word indicates 'compound noun', which means 'the action of visiting relatives'.
However, when pronounced the / 3 -1 2-1 / pattern, speech implies a noun phrase, which
means 'relatives who visit'. Here is another example that also shows the ambiguity of
'compound noun' and 'noun phrase'.

a. Flying object:
- An object to fly
- An object that flies
b. Moving car:
- A car for moving
- A car that moves

3. Type 3: VP NP + more ... than + NP

The third type of ambiguity is that of the comparative degree. This is ambiguous because of
the shortened version that functions as the subject of the second clause (abbreviated) or as the
object of the verb 'love' which has a comparative relationship with 'the fans'. The rule is that
if the comparative clause is identical to the main clause except for a contrasting or opposite
phrase, it might be possible to erase everything from the comparison clause (Baker 1989:
347). In other words, when someone makes a sentence using 'comparative degree', he will use
a sentence, for example, 'Tom Hates Martha more than Susanne', not 'Tom Hates Martha
more than he hates Susanne' to avoid repeating similar words . From the example of type 3
above, because of the elimination of similar words, sentences can have two meanings,

a. Jerry loves the fans more than Sally loves the fans.
b. Jerry loves the fans more than he loves Sally.

To make it clear and unambiguous, a shortening of the missing information must be added.
The short version of 'Jerry loves the fans more than Sally loves the fans' is supposed to be
'Jerry loves the fans more than Sally does'. If our intention is 'Jerry loves the fans more than
he loves sally', the sentence cannot be shortened or abbreviated.

The following is another example of the ambiguity of the 'comparative clause':

a. John listens to rock music more often than his father.

- John listen to rock music more often than his father listens to rock music.
- John listens to rock music more often than he listens to his father.

b. James loves Helen more than Joe.

- James loves Helen more than Joe loves Helen.
- James loves Helen more than James loves Joe.

4. Type 4: VP + NP + PP1 + PP2

The sentence above is ambiguous because the first modifier or 'modifier' 'on the table' can
modify the nearest NP or PP2. It is not clear whether 'on the table' modifies 'the bottle' or 'in
the kitchen'. If he modifies 'the bottle', it means that 'the bottle is already on the table and
should be put in the kitchen'. On the other hand, if he modifies 'in the kitchen', that means that
'the bottle should be put from somewhere else to the table which is in the kitchen'.

This ambiguity can be solved by placing a sentence or 'terminal juncture' between the first
and second 'modifiers'. Thus, the sentence can mean 'put the bottle on the table / in the
kitchen'. The decapitation indicates that 'the beaker and then to be put in the kitchen'.
Interpretation of the second meaning 'the bottle / on the table in the kitchen'. This means that
'the table should be on the table and not the table in the bedroom'.
Here is another example of ambiguity with two 'modifiers':

a. Place the box in the drawer in the bedroom.

- To place the box inside the drawer which is located in the bedroom.
- The box is already in the drawer and should be placed in the bedroom.

b. Put the radio on the box in that room.

- To put the radio on the box, which is located in that room.
- The radio is already on the box, and it should be put in that room.

5. Type 5: NP + Adj. Clause

This sentence can be ambiguous because it can be written in two versions with completely
different meanings:

a. The teacher thanked the students who had given her some flowers.
b. The teacher thanked the students, who had given her some flowers.

In oral language (speaking), the first sentence is pronounced without decapitation (juncture)
while the second is with decapitation between antecedent (NP) and Adj. clause. Interpretation
of the first sentence, Adj. clause 'who has given her some flowers' limits NP 'the students' to
give important information 'which students the teacher thanked'. This implies that 'the teacher
only some students who have given her some flowers (not those who didn't give her flowers)'.
Adj. the clause in the second sentence does not limit the antecedent 'the students'. Thus, it
provides additional information that is not needed to identify people (Sinclair 1990: 363).
That means that 'the teacher of all students (and all of them gave her flowers)'.

This shows that the importance of punctuation is appropriate in written language, and
decapitation (juncture) in spoken language. For Indonesian students themselves,
understanding different meanings of restricted and non-restricted adj. still a problem unless
they already have adequate linguistic knowledge. Here are some other examples:

a. Tom got into the car which was parked behind the house (there are many cars parked
behind the house).
- Tom got into the car, which was parked behind the house (there was only one car parked
behind the house).

b. In Indonesian Idol Contest, Joy is her hands on her fans who shouted at her (Joy waved her
hands only to some of her fans).
- In Indonesian Idol Contest, Joy waved her hands to her fans, who shouted at her (Joy waved
her hands to all of her fans).


We sometimes don't know if a sentence has a clear or ambiguous message. Whether we will
recognize or not this ambiguity, this depends on the linguistic knowledge possessed. For
students of English, it is still not easy to know whether a sentence is ambiguous or not. When
we have adequate English language skills, we must understand well the ambiguity in the
sentence, and try to avoid it as much as possible. In writing, for example, we need to use
some formal signals (such as punctuation) to avoid ambiguous sentences.

The five types of ambiguity presented in this paper are just a few examples of several types
of structural ambiguity that exist. Due to limited time and effort, there are still many other
types not explored in this paper. However, what is described in it, hopefully will contribute to
teaching and learning​ English.


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