The two common explanations for vagueness/ambiguity in language come from Zipf and Chomsky, and both seem to inherently assume that vagueness/ambiguity do not serve a positive purpose.

In the case of Chomsky, ambiguity arises out of the constraints of the mind at parsing language. Once again, this assumes speaker-and-listeners want to communicate perfectly.

In the case of Zipf, ambiguity arises from the conflict in energy investment between the speaker and listener. The speaker wishes for a totally ambiguous language where they can use one sound to mean everything, and leave the difficulty of disambiguation for the listener. The listener, on the other hand, wishes for a totally unambiguous language, so the difficulty of picking the right words is on the speaker, and the listener doesn't need to spend energy on disambiguation. Note, that this approach still assumes that the speaker-listener pair still have the goal of conveying a single meaning from one to the other.

Some recent work (pdf) even formalizes Zipf-like ideas to prove that ambiguity is essential to allow communication between parties with different priors. However, their approach relies on speaker-listeners that want to maximize the probability of conveying a single meaning from one to the other.


However, vague and ambiguous language, is often used on purpose by the speaker in order to have the listener select the meaning they most desire, and not necessarily the one intended by the speaker. A common example would be campaign promises from politicians, but the concept is often used for more artistic and pleasant purposes through songs and poems. Some go so far as to say that vagueness and ambiguity is what allows creativity.

Are there any theories (hopefully formal/analytic ones) that look at vagueness and ambiguity from a positive perspective? Or at least ones that don't presuppose that the speaker has a single meaning to convey to the listener or that the speaker-listener want to maximize their agreement on an intended meaning?

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    I just happened upon this title: Vague Language Explored. I don't think there's any formal theories in there, the focus seems to be on the function of vague language in context. But it is focused on intentional use of vagueness: "The contributors in Vague Language Explored look at intentional vagueness, which occurs by choice." – arjan Jan 10 '12 at 22:42
  • You may also want to pose this question at philosophy.stackexchange.com: the perspective on vagueness via the Sorites or 'heap' paradox has a long tradition in philosophy. – Mitch Jan 18 '12 at 16:29
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    Another information-theoretic recent article (via LinguistList): "A new cognitive science study examines ambiguity in language. They conclude that resolving ambiguity by inference is "cognitively cheaper" than having a longer utterance with exact meaning. They discuss implications of ambiguity for NLP." - PhysOrg story; Article: S.T. Piantadosi, H. Tily, and E. Gibson. The communicative function of ambiguity in language. (PDF) – arjan Jan 20 '12 at 1:44

There is discussion of what we call "ambiguity by design" in the following paper (see especially Section 4):

Kai von Fintel & Anthony S. Gillies. 2011. ‘Might’ made right. In Andy Egan & Brian Weatherson (eds.), Epistemic modality, 108–130. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

There are various mechanisms for dealing with ambiguity (see the article by Massimo Poesio that we cite, and other contributions in the volume in which Poesio's article appeared), but other than our paper, I know of little formal work that looks at ambiguity as something that might have its benefits.


Have you already seen this? Meaning and form of vagueness: a cross-linguistic perspective, Workshop at the 45th Annual Meeting of Societas Linguistica Europaea (SLE2012) https://sites.google.com/site/workshopvagueness2012/home


Some more references, neither positive nor negative, just impartial analysis, that it exists and what issues there are to think about it.:

  • Vagueness, by Timothy Williamson, 1994. Starts with the Heap/Sorites paradox (1 grain is not a heap, 2 grains are not a heap..., if n grains are not a heap then n+1 still do not make a heap, therefore there are no heaps (an obvious contradiction). Eventually touches on multivalued logics and fuzzy sets.

  • Vagueness, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. particularly the last section , Is All Vagueness Linguistic?.

Clarity of a convincing argument or in transfer of information has been a major desired goal in Western philosophy forever, and departures from it have been seen primarily as negative. The use of amphiboly, deliberate or not, is usually seen as a fallacy or error. So I feel that any intended use of vagueness would be considered misleading and manipulative, and so not likely in a positive light.

The above references don't do their analyses from an obviously tendentious, negative direction, so they may suffice for you, even though they don't attempt to make something explicitly positive about vagueness.


Long after the fact, hhere...

Rob Henderson (UArizona Linguistics) and some colleagues have done work on dogwhistles, a specific type of ambiguity, from both formal semantic, and agent-based modeling angles. In the event that you're still interested, you can find some of that work here:


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