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Glossary of Literary Theory
by Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown


A nonpejorative term for the capacity of language to sustain multiple meanings. Also called plurisignation or polysemy, ambiguity arises from what William Empson calls "any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language." In literary parlance, ambiguity is not a mistake in denotation to be avoided, but a resource of connotation to be exploited. In Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), Empson argues that the richness, complexity, and concentration of literary language derives from the seven types of ambiguity he discusses. The notion that ambiguity is the root condition of all literary discourse, a notion that arises from I. A. Richards's distinction between the scientific (referential or denotative) and the poetic (emotive or connotative) uses of language, is an integral aspect of the New Critical view that irony, paradox, and tension are definitive aspects of the work of art. (See also New Criticism.)

© Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown,
University of Toronto
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Last modified: March 31, 1997