am·​big·​u·​ous am-ˈbi-gyə-wəs How to pronounce ambiguous (audio)
: doubtful or uncertain especially from obscurity or indistinctness
eyes of an ambiguous color
: capable of being understood in two or more possible senses or ways
an ambiguous smile
an ambiguous term
a deliberately ambiguous reply
ambiguously adverb
ambiguousness noun

Frequently Asked Questions

Does ambiguous have the same meaning as unclear?

Ambiguous has, like many words in English, more than one possible meaning; a quality some might refer to as ambiguous itself. This word may mean "doubtful or uncertain especially from obscurity or indistinctness," "capable of being understood in two or more possible senses or ways," and "inexplicable."

What is the difference between ambiguous and ambivalent?

The Latin prefix ambi- means "both," and has led to many people confusing ambiguous and ambivalent. Ambivalent refers to having mixed, contradictory, or more than one feeling about something (the second portion of this word comes from the Latin valere, "to be strong, be worth"). Ambiguous, on the other hand, means unclear or able to be understood in multiple ways (it comes in part from the Latin agere, meaning to drive").

What is the noun form of ambiguous?

Ambiguous_ is an adjective. The noun form related to this word may be either ambiguity or ambiguousness. The adverb is ambiguously.

Choose the Right Synonym for ambiguous

obscure, dark, vague, enigmatic, cryptic, ambiguous, equivocal mean not clearly understandable.

obscure implies a hiding or veiling of meaning through some inadequacy of expression or withholding of full knowledge.

obscure poems

dark implies an imperfect or clouded revelation often with ominous or sinister suggestion.

muttered dark hints of revenge

vague implies a lack of clear formulation due to inadequate conception or consideration.

a vague sense of obligation

enigmatic stresses a puzzling, mystifying quality.

enigmatic occult writings

cryptic implies a purposely concealed meaning.

cryptic hints of hidden treasure

ambiguous applies to language capable of more than one interpretation.

an ambiguous directive

equivocal applies to language left open to differing interpretations with the intention of deceiving or evading.

moral precepts with equivocal phrasing

Examples of ambiguous in a Sentence

Greater familiarity with this artist makes one's assessment of him more tentative rather than less. His best pictures exude a hypersensitive, ambiguous aura of grace. Peter Schjeldahl, New Yorker, 10 Mar. 2003
He seeks sources for the speech's ideas in Lincoln's ambiguous stance toward organized religion, in the sermons of preachers he listened to, and in his Bible-reading habit. Gilbert Taylor, Booklist, 15 Dec. 2001
In Mexico we follow the fraught, ambiguous journey of a Tijuana cop … caught between the ruthless, corrupt general … he works for and the DEA, which wants him to inform on his countrymen. David Ansen, Newsweek, 8 Jan. 2001
Physicians could manipulate reimbursement rules to help their patients obtain coverage for care that the physicians perceive to be necessary, for example, through ambiguous documentation or by exaggerating the severity of patients' conditions. Michael K. Wynia et al., Journal of the American Medical Association, 12 Apr. 2000
We were confused by the ambiguous wording of the message. He looked at her with an ambiguous smile. Due to the ambiguous nature of the question, it was difficult to choose the right answer. the ambiguous position of women in modern society
Recent Examples on the Web Editors’ Picks But the Ukrainian boxer has also been criticized in the past for his seemingly ambiguous stance on Russia. Nataliia Novosolova, New York Times, 19 May 2024 The Mistral association is now years into expensive litigation due to the ambiguous wording of its governing documents, and the testimony of its witnesses and representatives. Jacob Leuze, Miami Herald, 18 May 2024 See all Example Sentences for ambiguous 

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'ambiguous.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Latin ambiguus "unresolved, hesitating in mind, of uncertain outcome, having more than one possible meaning, untrustworthy" (from ambigō, ambigere "to dispute, be undecided, call in question, be in doubt" —from amb- "around, about, on both sides" + agere "to drive [cattle], be in motion, do perform"— + -uus, deverbal adjective suffix) + -ous — more at ambient entry 1, agent

First Known Use

1528, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Time Traveler
The first known use of ambiguous was in 1528


Dictionary Entries Near ambiguous

Cite this Entry

“Ambiguous.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 30 May. 2024.

Kids Definition


am·​big·​u·​ous am-ˈbig-yə-wəs How to pronounce ambiguous (audio)
: able to be understood in more than one way
ambiguously adverb
ambiguousness noun

from Latin ambiguus "ambiguous," from ambigere "to be undecided," from ambi "around, both," and agere "to drive, do" — related to act, agent

More from Merriam-Webster on ambiguous

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