• Ambiguity (N), ambiguous (Adj) come from the Latin verb ambigere, “to discuss, to be in controversy”: qui ambigunt ‘those engaged in a discussion’ (Cic. Fin. 2,4)” (Gaffiot, Ambigo). To refer to the issue, the point upon which the partners disagree, Cicero uses the expression “illud ipsum de quo ambiguebatur”, “precisely that – about which – [they] dissent” (ibid.). Ambiguitas means “doubt”; the answers given by the Oracles were ambiguous in this sense.
      The word amphiboly is sometimes used in the discussion of the Aristotelian fallacies of ambiguity. It adapts a Greek word [amphibology] composed of amphi “on both sides”; bolos “throwing on all sides”; logos, “word”, and means “having a double meaning, equivocal”. Literally, an amphiboly is an “explosion of meaning”.

The word ambiguity may be used to refer to three fallacies “dependent on language”, homonymy, amphiboly, accent. These fallacies are defined as violations of the rule of syllogism or of dialectical reasoning, which require that language be univocal, S. Dialectic; Fallacies (2): Aristotle foundational list.

Issues of ambiguity arise at the word level (homonymy, accent), at the sentence level (syntactic ambiguity), or at the level of discourse. Such issues combine with the fact that non-ambiguous sentences may have several layers of signification, S. Presupposition; Words as Arguments.

1. Syntactic ambiguity

Sentence ambiguity, discussed by Aristotle from the perspective of a grammar of argumentation, is now seen as a syntactical issue. The famous Chomskyan ambiguous statement “flying planes can be dangerous” can be paraphrased as:

In some circumstances, flying planes is a dangerous activity
Planes are dangerous when they are flying.

These paraphrases are non-equivalent. The no less famous statement “the teacher says the principal is an ass” is syntactically ambiguous, it admits of two syntactic structures whose difference is marked by intonation or punctuation:

The teacher”, says the principal, “is an ass
The teacher says: “The principal is an ass”.

Ambiguity is sometimes a de-contextualization artifact, produced for the sake of grammatical or logical theory. In practice, the addition of a sufficient amount of left and right context suffices to clarify the intended meaning, as shown by the re-contextualization of the sentence “we saw her duck” (Wikipedia, Ambiguity), which is four times ambiguous when decontextualized:

we saw her duck swimming in the pool
we saw her duck to pick up something on the floor
we have no knife, so we saw her duck
she is a smart bridge player, we saw her duck

Serious ambiguity occurs when context does not disambiguate the sentence. The reduction of ambiguity to univocity is no less important for the interpretation of texts, sacred and others, than it is for logic, S. Interpretation. In De Doctrina Christiana, St Augustine specifies a rule to be applied when trying to interpret religious texts:

But when proper words make Scripture ambiguous, we must see in the first place that there is nothing wrong in our punctuation or pronunciation. Accordingly, if, when attention is given to the passage, it shall appear to be uncertain in what way it ought to be punctuated or pronounced, let the reader consult the rule of faith which he has gathered from the plainer passages of Scripture, and from the authority of the Church.
Augustine, [397] On Christian Doctrine, in Four Books, (our emphasis)[1]

The interpretive rule in the emphasized passage appeals to the consistency of the field of theological argument. It applies to the interpretation of the first verse of the first chapter of the St John Gospel. The issue is nothing less than the very concept of God. It must be shown that the correct “punctuation”, that is the correct reading of this verse, coincides with the orthodox conception of the Trinity, which affirms the divine identity and equality of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The reading which attributes a syntax of coordination to the utterance results in denying the identity of the Word, that is the Holy Spirit, with God; so, is must be considered heretical and rejected as such.

Now look at some examples. The heretical [punctuation], “In principio erat verbum, et verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat” “(In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was”); so as to make the next sentence run, “Verbum hoc erat in principio apud Deum” (“This word was in the beginning with God”), arises out of unwillingness to confess that the Word was God. But this must be rejected by the rule of faith, which, in reference to the equality of the Trinity, directs us to say: “et Deus erat verbum” (“and the Word was God”); and then to add: “hoc erat in principio apud Deum” (“the same was in the beginning with God”). (Id., Chap. II, 3)

It thus follows that, for Augustin, the orthodox punctuation and construction of the verse is:

In principio erat verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum. (Biblia Sacra…Parisiis, Letouzey et Ané, 1887).

This is a case of argumentative interpretation. The starting point is a sentence taken from the sacred text:

et verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat
the Word was with God1 and God2 was

First reading, God2 resumes (is co-referential with) God1. This is a mere case of repetition, a kind of stylistic anaphora.

the Word was with God1 and [God1] was.

The following argued interpretation might be developed from this reading:

(i) Data: (1) B does exist — (2) A is with B.
(ii) Semantic rule:   if A is with B, then A is not B; that is,A and B are two different entities.
(iii) So, conclusion, by instantiation of the rule, The Word is not God.

To sum up, God exists, and He is unique (not Trinitarian). According to Augustine, this first interpretation is heretic.

Second reading, God2 is co-referential with the Word:

the Word { [ was with God ] and [ was God ] }

Now, the Logos is God. This is the basis of the orthodox concept of the Trinity. The first reading is deemed fallacious, that is to say heretical. The alleged semantic rule (iii) is disposed of in the name of the mysterious nature of the Trinitarian link.

An interpretation is based upon a reading of the text; when necessary, this reading must itself be based upon a grammatical argument, the conclusion of which may or may not be decisive. Disambiguation is the founding operation for the vast and important domain of interpretive argumentation.

2. Word ambiguity: Homonymy, polysemy

Two words are homonymous when they have the same signifier (same spelling (homographs), same pronunciation (homophones) or both of these, yet have entirely different meanings. Homonymous words are listed as different entries in the dictionary:

Mine: “that which belongs to me.” (MW, Mine)
Mine: “a pit or excavation in the earth from which mineral substances are taken” (ibid.).

Polysemous words are semantic particularizations or acceptations of the same signifier within the same grammatical category. In the dictionary, they are listed under the same entry, and correspond to the first subdivision of meaning:

Mine, noun
1 a: a pit or excavation in the earth from which mineral substances are taken. b: an ore deposit.
2: a subterranean passage under an enemy position.
3: an encased explosive that is placed in the ground or in water and set to explode when disturbed.
4: a rich source of supply (id.)

When two different lines of derived words stem from the same root word, this word is in a process of splitting into two homonyms; this is the case of the three series derived from the word argument, S. To Argue, Argument.

2.1 Paralogism and sophism of homonymy

A syllogism is fallacious by homonymy when it articulates not three but four terms, one of the terms being taken in two different senses, S. Paralogism.

In the Euthydemus, Plato provides an example of sophisticated practice using a very special kind of homonymy. Euthydemus the sophist, the eponymous character of this dialogue, asks Clinias “who are the men who learn, the wise or the ignorant?” (Euth., 275d; p. 712). Poor Clinias blushes and answers that “the wise [are] the learners”; and six turns of speech later, he must agree that “it is the ignorant who learns” (Euth., 276a – b; p. 713). The young Clinias is quite stunned, and Euthydemus’ followers “broke into applause and laughter” (ibid.). Such sophisms are not intended to deceive their victims, but to destabilize their naive certainties about the language. By this salutary shock, the public becomes aware of the opacity and the proper form of language, S. Persuasion; Sophism. As Socrates later explains, “the same word is applied to opposite
 sorts of men, to both the man who knows and the man who does not” (id., 278a, p. 715).

Generally, the subject and object of a verb cannot be permuted; the situation where “A loves B” is different from the situation where “B loves A”. As to learn, to be the host of, to rent present this property:

to rent 1. pay someone for the use of (something, typically property, land, or a car). 2. (of an owner) allow someone to use (something) in return for payment.) (MW, Rent)

2.2 Homonymous and polysemous shifts

The plurivocity of words is blamed as a major source of confusion. Scientific language prohibits polysemy as well as homonymy, and calls for the use of univocal, well-defined terms stabilized in their meaning and syntax, in a given scientific field. Homonymy between a scientific term and a current word is harmless. In physics, the use of the word charm to refer to a particle, the charm quark creates no ambiguity.

In a reasoning using natural language, the meaning of terms is constructed and recomposed in the course of discourse, S. Object of discourse. The meaning of a word used by the same speaker may change from one stage of the argument to the following one. This results from a variety of mechanisms, such as the use of homonymous or closely similar words, or the use of a word in its literal and figurative senses in the same discourse. The discussion about the credit to be given to a person may, for example, subtly shift between setting the amount of a loan and trusting that person. In German, it seems that the economic discussion of financial debt remains linked to the discussion of moral fault, the same signifier, Schuld, having these two meanings. (Reverso, Schuld).

Homonymy and Polysemy may be re-adjusted by the operation of distinguo@.

3. “Accent”: stress and paronomasia

In a language where word stress is linguistically relevant, shifting the stress from one syllable to another may change the meaning of the word, for example in Spanish (my underlining):

Hacía: stress on the second syllable, means “did”.
Hacia: stress on the first syllable, means “to”, preposition.

The words seem homonymous save for the accent (verbal and written), but are in reality two different words. Much like the fallacy of homonymy which shifts the meaning of a single signifier, the fallacy of accent also shifts the meaning of the word via a minimal but crucial supra-segmental change. This process occurs as though the difference between the signifiers is not considered salient enough to discriminate between the variations of meaning.

This is a special case of paronomasia (or annominatio), defined as a:

(Pseudo-) etymological play on the slightness of the phonetic change on the one hand and the interesting range of meaning which is created by means of the change on the other. The range of meaning can in such cases be raised to the level of paradox. (Lausberg [1960], §637)

Generally speaking, paronomasia creates a meaning generating cell, by contrasting or assimilating a word (signifier) W0 with a minimally different word (signifier) W1.

In dialogue, the paronomastic resumption of a term used by the opponent operates as a rectification, breaking the orientation of this discourse, S. Orientation Reversal, “this is not a crisis of conscience, this is a crisis of confidence”.

[1] Bk III, Chap. 2, 2. No pag. Quoted after . (11-08-2017)