We all do it—writers everywhere, every day. We write ambiguously. Mostly we do it in draft, by accident, carelessly, or because we write after drinking wine and too late at night. That kind of ambiguous writing is cured by editors or rejection slips. But sometimes we write ambiguously on purpose. What are the ethics of that?
It depends, of course, said the burro to the horse. When we write ambiguously by accident, we confuse our readers by hindering the meaning of what we’re trying to say. But sometimes, we write ambiguously on purpose—for example, to add humor, wit, a little fun, or save a life. I’m not questioning the ethics of that. I’m writing about ambiguous writing on purpose; to deceive, avert, deny, evade, or lie. The ethics of that are included in my last sentence.
For starters, writers should distinguish ambiguity and vagueness. Ambiguity begets more than one potential conclusion. Vagueness is hazy because insufficient information is given. Intentional ambiguity is neither vague nor inconclusive. It is supposed to mislead, deceive, or relieve. Somewhat surprisingly, there is a reputable research paper devoted entirely to intentional ambiguity.
“Intentional ambiguity is necessary for people to pay some special attention. The research objective of the paper is intentional ambiguity and the paper is going to research and analyze the positive function of intentional ambiguity from advertising, literary works, daily talks, political speeches, etc. The paper aims to state the positive function of intentional ambiguity and then find out the potential value of it in communication.”
Sometimes, particularly in unintentional ambiguity, the meaning of words spoken or written are ironically misleading. Think about the word “mean.” One meaning could be, “I meant to go to the store.” It can mean nasty. It can mean a mathematical average. Or a means to an end by living within one’s means.
For most of our political history, politicians have been assuring constituents and voters by avoiding statements that might hurt their reelection chances or fail to satisfy new voters. So, they duck, bob, and weave around issues by writing ambiguously, on purpose. Perhaps the most common form is the infamous dodge, “Well, we’ll have to see about that.” Usually they know what will happen on their side of the aisle, but can avoid admission by the euphemism.
Before 2014, politicians did not use the term “undocumented immigrant.” Since then, most politicians have abandoned the term “illegal” for the more ambiguous “undocumented.” It may be still illegal, but politicians, whose repetitive language frequently appears in the media, influence what Americans say at the dinner table.
Ambiguity is so commonplace it has its own Wikipedia page. “For example, a politician might say, ‘I oppose taxes which hinder economic growth’, an example of a glittering generality. Some will think s/he opposes taxes in general because they hinder economic growth. Others may think s/he opposes only those taxes that s/he believes will hinder economic growth. In writing, the sentence can be rewritten to reduce possible misinterpretation, either by adding a comma after “taxes” (to convey the first sense) or by changing “which” to “that” (to convey the second sense) or by rewriting it in other ways. The devious politician hopes that each constituent will interpret the statement in the most desirable way, and think the politician supports everyone’s opinion. However, the opposite can also be true – an opponent can turn a positive statement into a bad one if the speaker uses ambiguity (intentionally or not). The logical fallacies of amphiboly and equivocation rely heavily on ambiguous words and phrases.”
Former President Trump suggested in 2016 that “Maybe there is something Second Amendment supporters could do to stop his Democratic rival from picking Supreme Court justices.” Was it intentionally ambiguous? Did it cause outrage among those who read it as an incitement to violence? Did his base love it?
A “weasel word,” or anonymous authority, is an informal term for words and phrases aimed at creating an impression that something specific and meaningful has been said, when in fact only a vague or ambiguous claim has been communicated. Examples include the phrases “some people say”, “most people think”, and “researchers believe.” Using weasel words may allow one to later deny any specific meaning if the statement is challenged, because the statement was never specific. Weasel words can be a form of tergiversation and may be used in advertising, conspiracy theories and political statements to mislead or disguise a biased view.
While political intentional ambiguity is rampant today, it’s hardly new. Lewis Carrol made it clear in dialogue in 1872.
“When I use a word, Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean – nothing more nor less.”
“The question is, ‘said Alice,’ whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is, ‘said Humpty Dumpty,’ which is to be master — that’s all.”
No one can say Lewis Carroll wrote unethically.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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 Liu Ying. “A Case Study on Positive Function of Intentional Ambiguity in English.” International Journal of Languages, Literature and Linguistics, Vol. 5, No. 4, December 2019.
 Lewis Carroll. “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Dated 1872; actually published in December 1871. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Through-the-Looking-Glass