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Seven Types of Ambiguity

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A critical work by W. Empson, published 1930, rev. 1947, 1953; one of the most enjoyable and influential offshoots from I. A. Richards's experiments with practical criticism.

Empson uses the term ambiguity ‘in an extended sense’, to refer to ‘any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language’. The first, or simplest, type of ambiguity he defines as simple metaphor, ‘a word or a grammatical construction effective in several ways at once’. The second occurs ‘when two or more meanings are resolved into one’ (as by ‘Double Grammar’ in Shakespeare); the third consists of two apparently disconnected meanings given simultaneously, as in a pun, or, by extension, in allegory or pastoral, where reference is made to more than one ‘universe of discourse’; the fourth occurs when ‘alternative meanings combine to make clear a complicated state of mind in the author’ (with examples from Shakespeare, Donne, and G. M. Hopkins); the fifth consists of what Empson calls ‘fortunate confusion’, with examples from Shelley and Swinburne, suggesting the possibility that 19th‐cent. technique is ‘in part the metaphysical tradition dug up when rotten’; the sixth occurs when a statement in itself meaningless or contradictory forces the reader to supply interpretations; and an account of the seventh, which ‘marks a division in the author's mind’, is accompanied by quotations from Freud and illustrations from Crashaw, Keats, and Hopkins.

Subjects: Literature

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William Empson (1906—1984) poet and literary critic