adjective am·big·u·ous \ am-ˈbi-gyə-wəs \
|Updated on: 9 Jul 2018

Definition of ambiguous

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





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Examples of ambiguous in a Sentence

  1. 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 SchjeldahlNew Yorker10 Mar. 2003
  2. 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 TaylorBooklist15 Dec. 2001
  3. 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 AnsenNewsweek8 Jan. 2001
  4. 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 Association12 Apr. 2000
  5. We were confused by the ambiguous wording of the message.

  6. He looked at her with an ambiguous smile.

  7. Due to the ambiguous nature of the question, it was difficult to choose the right answer.

  8. the ambiguous position of women in modern society

Recent Examples of ambiguous from the Web

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.

ambiguous vs. ambivalent

The difficulty that many people have in distinguishing between ambiguous and ambivalent shows that all that is needed to create confusion with words is to begin them with several of the same letters. In spite of the fact that these two words have histories, meanings, and origins that are fairly distinct, people often worry about mistakenly using one for the other.

Dating to the 16th century, ambiguous is quite a bit older than ambivalent, which appears to have entered English in the jargon of early 20th-century psychologists. Both words are in some fashion concerned with duality: ambivalent relates to multiple and contradictory feelings, whereas ambiguous often describes something with several possible meanings that create uncertainty.

The words’ etymologies offer some help in distinguishing between them. Their shared prefix, ambi-, means "both." The -valent in ambivalent comes from the Late Latin valentia ("power") and, in combination with ambi-, suggests the pull of two different emotions. The -guous in ambiguous, on the other hand, comes ultimately from Latin agere ("to drive, to lead"); paired with ambi-, it suggests movement in two directions at once, and hence, a wavering or uncertainty.

Origin and Etymology of ambiguous

Latin ambiguus, from ambigere to be undecided, from ambi- + agere to drive — more at agent

Synonym Discussion of 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

AMBIGUOUS Defined for English Language Learners


Definition of ambiguous for English Language Learners

  • : able to be understood in more than one way : having more than one possible meaning

  • : not expressed or understood clearly

AMBIGUOUS Defined for Kids


adjective am·big·u·ous \ am-ˈbi-gyə-wəs \

Definition of ambiguous for Students

: able to be understood in more than one way
  • an ambiguous explanation


  • answered ambiguously

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