As a joke, is

A seal walks into a club...

an example of semantic ambiguity, lexical ambiguity, or the expression I just recently discovered, lexical semantic ambiguity? Or put another way, is lexical ambiguity a sub-category of semantic ambiguity?

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    Whatever it is, it sounds painful. – Sven Yargs Mar 11 '16 at 0:59
  • I don't get it -- what's so funny about Jesse Ventura walking into a club? – Hot Licks Apr 10 '16 at 2:29
  • Most words have multiple meanings (most dictionaries have more than one entry for the same word. Sure this can be called lexical ambiguity or polysemy. It makes puns possible – Mitch Sep 14 '16 at 11:16
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    Please add the definitions of the terms you offer. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 24 '19 at 14:00

Following Wikipedia:

Lexical ambiguity is contrasted with semantic ambiguity. The former represents a choice between a finite number of known and meaningful context-dependent interpretations. The latter represents a choice between any number of possible interpretations, none of which may have a standard agreed-upon meaning. This form of ambiguity is closely related to vagueness.

The joke in question is based on precisely two meanings of the word "club", making this a lexical ambiguity.

  • That quote does not distinguish the two. If you follow the explanations further, both semantic and lexical ambiguity refer to 'polysemy' which is explained as multiple meanings of a word. Whatever their differences might be, ambiguity is shared. – Mitch Mar 13 '17 at 15:25
  • @Mitch: On the contrary. In both cases there's polysemy, but while lexical ambiguity is a specific, finite number of alternative meanings, semantic ambiguity is open-ended; you're unable to create a complete list. In this example the list of relevant meanings is strictly two items: "club" meaning a wooden blunt trauma weapon, and "club" as an establishment where people meet. And while you might try to derive some extra meanings, they are irrelevant to the sentence as a joke; it's strictly based on the two meanings and not any other number. – SF. Mar 13 '17 at 16:22
  • So the wiki article says that lexical = finite, semantic = open ended? OK. But then I disagree that this is what they actually are. As @deadrat mentions below, all ambiguity is semantic, the subtypes that are recognized in linguistics are lexical, syntactic, and scope. – Mitch Mar 13 '17 at 17:44
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    @mitch: The name of the superset is linguistic ambiguity. Lexical ambiguity is based strictly on multiple dictionary definitions of a word, or in other words, given words being exact homophones. Semantic ambiguity is derived from lack of context or precision; phrase or sentence being infinitely interpretable. One is not a derivative of the other. Answer me this: "How many roads can you take?" - How many context-dependent interpretations can you find for that sentence? – SF. Mar 13 '17 at 18:12
  • The Wiktionary article is flawed. >> 'We saw her duck' is offered as an example of 'semantic ambiguity', with two possible readings. //// However earlier the article has 'Lexical ambiguity is contrasted semantic ambiguity. The former represents a choice between a finite number of known and meaningful context-dependent interpretations. The latter represents a choice between any number of possible interpretations, none of which may have a standard agreed-upon meaning.' Obviously, this means that 'We saw her duck' is not disqualified from being considered an example of 'lexical ambiguity'. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 24 '19 at 14:17

It's semantic ambiguity.

The joke here is about whether the words should be interpreted to mean "enters a place of dancing" or "travels until collides with domain-relevant weapon."

Questions about meaning are about semantics.

Lexical ambiguity is when the structure of the sentence, rather than the meanings of the words, causes the problem, as in "the police shot the rioters with guns," because it's not clear whether the "with guns" part applies to the police or the rioters. The meaning of the individual words is clear; it's their usage of construction that causes the problem.

Lexical semantic ambiguity is uncommon. It's when, based on a lexical structuring issue, the resulting two legitimate parses then specifically indicate different semantic meanings. I'm having trouble coming up with a good example, but a bad example is "the boxers stopped the rioters with guns" - if the "guns" part applies to the rioters, it's a pistol, but if it applies to boxers, it's a joke about their arm muscles.

Your ambiguity has nothing to do with the structure of the sentence, and everything to do with the meaning of the words.

Therefore, semantic.

  • 1
    Your description of lexical ambiguity seems odd to me: what does it have to do with the lexicon? Other sources seem to call this type of ambiguity "syntactic ambiguity," and reserve "lexical ambiguity" to "the presence of two or more possible meanings within a single word," which makes more sense to me (for example, here: grammar.about.com/od/il/g/lexicalambiguityterm.htm). Are both terms used by different people? – herisson Mar 11 '16 at 1:26
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    This answer needs both work and references. All ambiguity is semantic, because that's what ambiguity means -- uncertainty in choice of meanings. Lexical ambiguity arises from the multiple meanings of words. Syntactic ambiguity arises from sentence structure. Both types are at work in the police shot the rioters with guns, which relies on an ambiguous referent for with guns (syntactic) and on the different meanings of with, agency and accompaniment (lexemic). – deadrat Mar 11 '16 at 3:32
  • This answer has 'lexical' and 'semantic' (ie, grammatical) backwards! – AmI May 12 '17 at 21:41
  • Punishment squad notwithstanding, the reference says that I do not have these things backwards – John Haugeland May 15 '17 at 22:21

One example of lexico-semantic ambiguity:

Michael didn't win the lottery.

Michael didn't win because he spent money but didn't buy a winning ticket, or because he didn't play and had no chance of winning, or because he went to work, allowing us to infer that he didn't win the lottery.

  • Please tidy up the tenses and add the missing apostrophes. – Lawrence Dec 24 '19 at 12:19
  • There's no lexical ambiguity here: every word has only one meaning. There's not much in the way of semantic ambiguity -- "Michael didn't win the lottery" means only one thing: he didn't win the lottery. How you come to that conclusion, or the reasons for the statement, don't make it ambiguous. – Andrew Leach Dec 24 '19 at 13:41

It is not an ambiguity of any kind. It is an absurdity to make people laugh in the very beginning of the joke.

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    I'm not sure you have picked up the double entendre here. It's sort of like saying, "A baseball hits a bat..." and then saying "..and the bat says, 'That's what I get for chasing flies while the game is still going on.'" In the seal "joke," the double entendre is that hunters use clubs to kill seal pups for their fur. – Sven Yargs May 17 '16 at 2:51
  • As I understand it, there is structural ambiguity, which is syntactic, and lexical ambiguity, which depends on individual word meanings. The sentence: 'The boy saw the man with the telescope' is an example of structural ambiguity. – Brian J Mar 13 '17 at 14:04

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