ambiguous

adjective

am·​big·​u·​ous am-ˈbi-gyə-wəs How to pronounce ambiguous (audio)
1
a
: doubtful or uncertain especially from obscurity or indistinctness
eyes of an ambiguous color
2
: 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

Example Sentences

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 See More
Recent Examples on the Web Davison and Harvey sprinkle strong jolts of terror into a story that is otherwise deliberately ambiguous, relying on deep-seated dread and maternal anxiety to ratchet up the tension even when not much else is happening. Noel Murray, Los Angeles Times, 11 Nov. 2022 Pope and Castillo are especially good at making the relationship between these two men so tantalizingly ambiguous. K. Austin Collins, Rolling Stone, 18 Nov. 2022 This would not apply to an intersex child, who has atypical or ambiguous chromosomal, gonadal, genital, or endocrine characteristics. Kiara Alfonseca, ABC News, 16 Nov. 2022 Compared with the ambiguous stance of China, observers have noted a more obvious shift from India – and the greater role Delhi is willing to play in engaging all sides. Nectar Gan, CNN, 16 Nov. 2022 Those ballots came in from voters marked in blue ballpoint pen, with check marks, x marks and other ambiguous marks rather than the oval bubble being filled in. Sasha Hupka, The Arizona Republic, 14 Nov. 2022 The midterm-election results are full of inconvenient truths and, as is often the case, just ambiguous enough to allow for ample spin depending on one’s partisan leaning. David L. Bahnsen, National Review, 10 Nov. 2022 Vermont’s constitutional amendment removes what supporters say is ambiguous language and makes clear that slavery and indentured servitude are prohibited in the state. Aaron Morrison, BostonGlobe.com, 9 Nov. 2022 Though Wells keeps it ambiguous, there are signs that Calum is floundering in divorce, struggling with money, and suffocated by depression. A.a. Dowd, Chron, 9 Nov. 2022 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'ambiguous.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

Word History

Etymology

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

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Dictionary Entries Near ambiguous

Cite this Entry

“Ambiguous.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ambiguous. Accessed 7 Dec. 2022.

Kids Definition

ambiguous

adjective

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

More from Merriam-Webster on ambiguous

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