The word 'excellent', in and of itself, cannot have negative connotations. The word 'exceptional', however, can have both positive, neutral and negative connotations.

So one can say that the word 'exceptional' have a higher 'propensity for ambiguity' than the word 'excellent'. Is there a more technical term for this?

  • 3
    No, not really, because ambiguity is not a property of individual words, but of the contexts they're used in and how they are interpreted in them. Plus, of course, writing offers so many more opportunities for ambiguity than speech that virtually all written sentences are multiply ambiguous, but humans automatically filter out the inappropriate readings. This is one of the more surprising results of automatic parsing technology; writing loses so much information (intonation, stress, gaze direction, facial expressions, gestures, etc) that it's only slightly better than smoke signals. Mar 7, 2015 at 16:42
  • I think that this is a question about English usage rather than linguistics proper. Perhaps you should ask it on the English Stack Exchange? Mar 7, 2015 at 20:32
  • Words do not "have" properties. Instead, meaning, ambiguous or not, is constructed through discourse.
    – Teusz
    Mar 8, 2015 at 14:44
  • Certainly in machine translation the concept is real and of practical value. Just because context in a sentence changes the ambiguity doesn't mean that individual words in isolation don't have varying numbers of senses. Jan 11, 2016 at 7:19
  • I'm wondering about the first statement: "cannot have negative connotations". Is irony and sarcastic humour excluded? In which case, using the word excellent, can be used to mean the contrary of it! Feb 24, 2019 at 13:07

2 Answers 2


This article says words do have a property called ambiguity. The Wikipedia article on ambiguity gives this example:

One could say "I bought herbs from the apothecary". This could mean one actually spoke to the apothecary (pharmacist) or went to the apothecary (pharmacy).

It also says

The context in which an ambiguous word is used often makes it evident which of > the meanings is intended.

"Pharmacist" or "pharmacy" have obviously more distinct meaning compared to "apothecary." Contexts might alleviate the ambiguity of each word, but it won't change the fact that there's word-level ambiguity. So words should "have" properties like ambiguity.

According to the article, there's a word lexical ambiguity to refer to the word-level ambiguity of meaning in contrast to syntactic ambiguity and semantic ambiguity. And there's a word polysemy to describe a word being lexically ambiguous. There's also a word polyseme to refer to such words.

Identifying which sense of a word is used in a sentence is called word-sense disambiguation (WSD) in computational linguistics. This term is used like "The human brain is quite proficient at word-sense disambiguation. " in the article.


Equally as ambiguous is the word ambiguousness which refers to the property of a word's ambiguity. In effect a word's ability to be ambiguous. After reading the linked the article, I feel that ambiguousness would aptly be the most suited word to describe the measurement of ambiguity a word or phrase would have. Granted you would say that a word or phrase that is more ambiguous than any other was simply that, more ambiguous that is in and of itself the ambiguousness of that word

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