Figure Name amphiboly
Source Rhetorical stylistics; Silva Rhetoricae ( ("amphibologia"); Sherry (1550) 33 ("amphibologia," "ambiguitas"); Peacham (1577) G1r ; Vinsauf (1967) ("ambiguity"); Hill (1883); Waddy (1889)("ambiguity"); Bullinger (1898) ("amphibologia; or, double meaning"); Johnson (1903) ("ambiguity"); Kellog (1880) ("ambiguity")
Earliest Source None
Synonyms amphibologia, amphibology, ambiguitas, ambiguous, ambiguity
Etymology from Gk. amphi- “on both sides,” bolos “a throw” and logos “word”
Type Trope
Linguistic Domain Lexicographic

1. A phrase that can genuinely be construed as having two meanings. (Rhetorical Stylistics)

2. Ambiguity of grammatical structure, often occasioned by mispunctuation. (Silva Rhetoricae)

3. That peerless man: the word means most excellent; but most vicious glances at us obliquely: this is its meaning. The word belies its appearance, or else our perception errs. In such ambiguities, the actual fact is veiled and the mockery obvious. (Vinsauf)

4. 1) Ambiguity.- A failure to place related words in proximity often involves excellent writers in ambiguity. (Hill)

5. The faults opposed to clearness are two: (1) Obscurity, which leaves us wholly in doubt as to the author's meaning; (2) Ambiguity, which leaves us in doubt as to which of two or more meanings is the one intended. (Waddy)

6. A Word or Phrase susceptible of two Interpretations... hence, amphibologia is a word Or phrase susceptible of two interpretations. It is not synonymous with what we speak of as ambiguous; which means that which is uncertain or equivocal.

A statement which is amphibological has two meanings, both of which are absolutely true. (An equivocation has two meanings also, but only one of them is true.) ... (Bullinger, 790)

7. Ambiguity.—The first virtue in any literary work is perfect clearness. Ambiguity is intolerable, and every writer, before publishing, should read his work carefully to detect any passage that may be liable to more than one construction. (Johnson, 23)

8. 3. USE PERSONAL PRONOUNS WITH CARE.-Much obscurity arises from the careless use of he, she, and it, in their several cases and numbers. It is impossible to tell which of many nouns the writer intends to be the antecedent-the word for which the pronoun stands-,and so it is impossible to know certainly what the writer's meaning is. Here arises that kind of obscurity which we call ambiguity. It is not that you cannot extract a meaning from the sentence, but that you can extract many meanings, and are in doubt which the author wishes you to take. (Kellog, 93)


1. Among a well known set of phrases from job letters that communicate on two levels is the following: “You will be lucky to get this person to work for you.” On one reading, the phrase “to get to work for you” means employing or hiring the person. On a second reading, the phrase means, “to perform a task.” (Rhetorical Stylistics)

4. Thus Addison says: "Let us endeavor to establish to ourselves an interest in him, who holds the reins of the whole creation in his hands." "The creation in his hands" is suggestive in insignificance, the very opposite of what the author would convey, for he doubtless means, "who holds in his hands the reins of the whole creation." (Hill)

4. Dr. Blair, in his "Rhetoric," has not always avoided this fault. He says: "There is a remarkable unions in his style of harmony and ease; when he does not mean "his style of harmony and ease," but a "union of harmony and ease in his style." (Hill)

6. 2 Kings 5:18. -"Go in peace." This was Elisha's answer to Naaman, who wished to know whether the LORD would pardon if, when he went with his master, the king of Syria into the tempe of Rimmon, he bowed himself there.

Elisha's answer was an Amphibologia: "Go in peace." If he had said, "Yes; you may bow," that would have been to sanction idolatry. And if he had said, "No; you must not bow," that would have been to put Naaman's conscience under a yoke of bondage to Elisha. (Bullinger, 791)

7. In his essay on Shakespeare, Emerson writes: " A popular player—nobody suspected he was the poet of the human race ; and the secret was kept as faithfully from poets and intellectual men as from courtiers and frivolous people." Here the first ambiguity is in the word " popular." If Emerson uses it in the ordinary sense of favorite of the people, there is no warrant for it. We have no information that Shakespeare as a player was more than an obscure stock actor. But what is the force of the whole clause? Does he mean. Although he was a popular player, nobody suspected, etc.? Or does he mean, Because he was a popular player, nobody suspected, etc.? (Johnson, 24)

Kind Of Similarity
Part Of
Related Figures
Notes Changed LD from Syntactic to Lexicographic and Semantic. Changed Type from Scheme to Trope, and added Similarity to Type Of. The main entry in SR is "amphibologia" and I wonder if that should be the main entry here as well. - Nike
Confidence Unconfident
Last Editor Ioanna Malton
Confidence Unconfident
Editorial Notes
Reviewed No