I am aware that when something (a statement, sentence, etc.) is ambiguous it leads to uncertainty due to more than one interpretation; but does ambiguous imply incomplete? Put another way, can something be incomplete yet unambiguous? Any examples would help.



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    How is this an English language usage question? Sounds more like philosophy to me. – Lambie Dec 12 '18 at 21:06
  • Apologies if my question is not suitable. I am very fussy and trying to understand what (if any) difference there is; I often see statements such as "... ambiguous and incomplete...". I want to understand to help me use just one correct word to describe issues when reviewing technical documents. – markjames Dec 12 '18 at 21:17
  • You seem to be a native speaker so the question seems odd to me. I think you mean: is it redundant? – Lambie Dec 12 '18 at 21:19
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    What do you mean by complete? It seems that every statement - every statement that is not the utterance of the entire universe - could be called "incomplete." That is, every statement leaves out most information. An unambiguous statement contains enough information that the statement can be understood exactly as the speaker intended. That is probably not how I would define complete. – Juhasz Dec 12 '18 at 21:23
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    If I use the character O it's often ambiguous (depending on font) as to whether it means the letter "oh" or the numeral "zero". It is not "incomplete", however, since, in the proper context, it's meaning can be readily determined. – Hot Licks Dec 13 '18 at 3:26

Ambiguous and incomplete are two distinct concepts. You can check the definitions in any reputable dictionary, but here is some illumination:

Statements can be ambiguous without being incomplete:

“Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” —James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Here the ambiguity lies in the verb to forge, which splits along two lines: forging as a constructive process ("a blacksmith forges weapons") and a duplicitous one ("a thief may forge your signature on a check", "this painting is a forgery"). This sort of ironic wordplay was bread and butter to Joyce. But the statement in the novel is certainly complete.

Statements can be incomplete without being ambiguous:

A: Can I borrow a dollar?
B: I don't have any money.

B may have money, just none to lend to A. The statement is incomplete, but there is no ambiguity, since for the purposes of the conversation there is no money and a further explanation is not required.

That said,

A statement may be ambiguous because it is incomplete:

I like the way you move [my furniture].

Leaving out the furniture leaves the statement open to multiple interpretations.


Here's an example of an ambiguous yet complete sentence: I saw a man on a hill with a telescope.

This could mean the following:

  • There’s a man on a hill, and I’m watching him with my telescope.

  • There’s a man on a hill, who I’m seeing, and he has a telescope.

  • There’s a man, and he’s on a hill that also has a telescope on it.
  • I’m on a hill, and I saw a man using a telescope.
  • There’s a man on a hill, and I’m seeing him with a telescope.

Defining 'incomplete' as not having all the necessary or appropriate parts. or not full or finished (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/incomplete), my example sentence wouldn't fall into that category.

Put simply, they're two completely different categories.

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