Linguistic pitfalls are inappropriate uses of language that hinder accurate and effective communication. This can happen when we use language that is unclear, distorted, or empty in meaning. We now look at these situations one by one.


Lack of clarity can arise in many ways. The words we use might be ambiguous or imprecise or the meanings are incomplete. But it can also be due to the failure to organize ideas properly.

5.1.1 Ambiguity

An ambiguous expression is one with more than one meaning or reference. There are different kinds of ambiguity. Lexical ambiguities are cases where a single word or name has more than one meaning in a language—for example, deep (“deep insight” vs. “deep tunnel”) and bank (“river bank” vs. “investment bank”) and words like light and over. Consider also Japanese teacher, which might mean a teacher from Japan or anyone who teaches Japanese. Even place names can be ambiguous. Angkor Wat is commonly used to refer to the beautiful historic site in Cambodia containing lots of temples built by the Khmer monarchs. But Angkor Wat is also the name of just one specific temple (the largest one) in the whole area.

Referential ambiguity arises when the context does not make it clear what a pronoun or quantifier is referring to.

  • John hit Peter with his iPhone. Then he died. (John, Peter or someone else?)
  • Amie and Lusina gave some cookies to Delman and Michelle because they liked them.

Syntactic ambiguity occurs ...

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