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I was reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles about Ambiguity and Vagueness, and was led to ask this question. Is there a difference between the two concepts? If so, are there examples of ambiguity without vagueness, and vice versa?

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    Vague terms describe a spectrum of meanings without sharp boundaries (e.g. "smart"), ambiguous terms have two or more disjoint meanings (e.g. "sphere" as a round body and as its surface), see SEP: "This contrast between vagueness and ambiguity is obscured by the fact that most words are both vague and ambiguous."
    – Conifold
    Sep 8, 2022 at 20:03
  • This is a simple question of a dictionary lookup.
    – BillOnne
    Sep 8, 2022 at 21:08
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    Indeed a large part of philosophy could be said to identify polysemy ambiguity from semantic indeterminate inquiry-resistant vagueness. For example, in the proposition "I walked along the bank on my way to the bank" there's no vagueness just mixed ambiguity... Sep 9, 2022 at 1:40
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    @ScottRowe Jealous is with regards to protecting what you have, while envy is with regards to what someone else has. A jealous husband loves his wife; an envious husband loves someone else's wife. This shows in the common definitions, but this hasn't stopped people from claiming they are "jealous" when confronted with their friend's new toy. People don't tend to claim envy when they mean jealous, however.
    – user10479
    Sep 11, 2022 at 19:51
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    Both can lead to confusion. Feb 20, 2023 at 13:57

3 Answers 3

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I am assuming that your question has a philosophical implication. Ambiguity involves two meanings. Vagueness is broader, involving several possibilities. Philosophically, do you mean deliberate ambiguity or vagueness? This has great political utility obviously. It is related to plausible deniability. Ethically, it might be used to mitigate damage caused by hurtful information. Ambiguity can be vague, but vagueness is not ambiguous, since there are more than two options.

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  • Ambiguity does derive from 'ambos', but ambiguity doesn't derive from two choices.
    – J D
    Dec 5, 2023 at 20:08
  • I am answering the question philosophically, going beyond the dictionary definition, as I make clear in my opening sentence.
    – Meanach
    Dec 5, 2023 at 21:12
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Vague and ambiguous are overlapping terms and can be used as synonyms. However, the key idea conveyed by vague, which differentiates it from ambiguous, is indistinctness. To take the example cited in JD's excellent answer, 'The boy picked up the bat' can take several meanings, but each of the possible meanings is reasonably clear. Compare that with 'The boy did something', which is far less specific. Ambiguity, then, is best used to imply a choice between alternative distinct meanings, whereas vagueness should be used to imply an indistinct meaning.

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  • +1 "Indistinct meaning". That's the crux of it! I wish I had thought of using that synonym. We could even combine them with "the long bat". On the one hand, bat is ambiguous because we don't know 'WHICH bat', but even if we did know which bat, it still remains indistinct as to 'WHAT is long'?
    – J D
    Dec 5, 2023 at 21:18
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    @JD cheers! "The boy picked up something- it was A. Bat, the famous Italian tenor, coming through on short-wave from Milan.' I remember the good old days of valve radio. Dec 5, 2023 at 22:15
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Ambiguity and vagueness are not the same thing. Let's see what WP has to say on each. From the WP article on ambiguity:

Ambiguity is the type of meaning in which a phrase, statement, or resolution is not explicitly defined, making several interpretations, others describe it as a concept or statement that has no real reference. A common aspect of ambiguity is uncertainty. It is thus an attribute of any idea or statement whose intended meaning cannot be definitively resolved, according to a rule or process with a finite number of steps (The prefix ambi- reflects the idea of "two," as in "two meanings.").

The concept of ambiguity is generally contrasted with vagueness. In ambiguity, specific and distinct interpretations are permitted (although some may not be immediately obvious), whereas with vague information it is difficult to form any interpretation at the desired level of specificity. (emphasis mine)

So, we can see that ambiguity has to do with a range of existing interpretations (not just 2) and that vagueness has to do with an inability to interpret. An example will make this clear.

Example of Ambiguity - The boy picked up the bat.

So, here we see that the boy picked up something called 'bat'. There are multiple senses that 'bat' refers to. 1. He might be playing a game of baseball. 2. He might have found a flying mammal in the forest. 3. He might be playing a game of cricket. A cricket bat, a baseball bat, and a vampire bat are all different things. In fact, he may have picked up a 'bat' that is not one of these 'bats' at all. Normally, the context of the text provides us the information to deal with decoding the meaning of a lexeme. But ambiguity can apply to more than words. It might apply to sentences, as Quine argued in his theory of holophrastic indeterminancy.

Example of Vagueness - The Willis Tower is a tall building.

Here, we face a different challenge. We know what someone means when they say tall building in the sense that it stretches high up into the sky. But just how high in the sky does one have to go to be a tall structure? Clearly a skyscraper is tall to most people, but what about a 10-story building? 5-story building? A 10-foot observation platform? A tree fort at 6 ft? Where does tall begin? This sort of vagueness isn't about different meanings, but different judgements which, isn't so much a value decision of morality, but one of ontology because it has to do with categories or types of things. This is a well-known philosophical problem in the form of sorites paradox where the question of what exactly is a pile of sand relates to the vagueness inherent in the necessary and sufficient conditions of what entails a 'pile'. Today, logic and language is often developed to help reduce that ambiguity, and as such is called a precising definition which are often found in conventions or standards.

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