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Subject Literature

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631207535.1997.x


An expression is ambiguous if it contains two or more different (usually mutually exclusive) meanings between which the interpreter must choose. When Milton wrote that some of God's servants “also serve who only stand and wait”, are we to picture them waiting for God's commands, or waiting on him, as servants? In ordinary usage and in pre-twentieth-century literary criticism, ambiguity is usually seen as a flaw, but in modern criticism it becomes a term of praise. William E mpson argued in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), “The machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry,” and the N ew C ritics subsequently took up this argument and made it a keystone of their theory. Interest in ambiguity has recently been revived in D econstruction , but now with an emphasis on the undecidable multiplicity of all linguistic meaning rather than as a specific literary device whose contradictions can in principle be resolved by Empsonian analysis. See also E mpson , W illiam ; N ew C riticism . 1930 ( 1973 ): Seven Types of Ambiguity . 1986 : “ Ambiguity and indeterminacy: the juncture ”. ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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