Language is full of ambiguity. Not only do we have words with two different meanings, but we have sentences which–because of structural ambiguity–can have multiple meanings.
One of the more famous examples that illustrates these issues is the following sentence:
I shot the elephant in my pajamas.
This sentence has two structural interpretations. One where “in my pajamas” modifies the verb—so that “I” am wearing them. The other where “in my pajamas modifies “the elephant,” so that the elephant is wearing “my pajamas.”
However, there is also a word-level ambiguity in this sentence, since we don’t know whether or not “shot” means “with a gun” or “with a camera.”
Students need to learn to control these ambiguities–exploiting them when they want to let the reader wonder, and avoiding them when they’re trying to limit the possible interpretations of their words. Certainly, if you’re trying to sell newspapers or attract people to your website, an ambiguous headline like the one in this link can attract a lot of attention. (Fair warning: the headline is rated PG-13.)
In fact, so many newspapers have exploited such ambiguities, that word geeks have started collecting them:
On the other hand, in an academic paper–where students are supposed to prove what they’ve learned–student writers should not leave their professor guessing about the meanings of their words.
One fun way to get them to pay attention to these differences is assign them to collect examples for themselves–and to label them as either a word-level or a structural ambiguity. Fair warning, as the first link illustrates, many of headlines students could find may include ambiguities that are quite suggestive. Should you decide to use this activity in your own classroom, you should set clear guidelines on what is appropriate for your classroom.