Skip to main content
Humanities Libertexts

1.E: Developing a Precise Language (Exercises)

  1. Vagueness arises when the conditions under which a sentence might be true are “fuzzy”.  That is, in some cases, we cannot identify if the sentence is true or false.  If we say, “Tom is tall”, this sentence is certainly true if Tom is the tallest person in the world, but it is not clear whether it is true if Tom is 185 centimeters tall.  Identify or create five declarative sentences in English that are vague.
  1. Ambiguity usually arises when a word or phrase has several distinct possible interpretations.  In our example above, the word “pen” could mean either a writing implement or a structure to hold a child.  A sentence that includes “pen” could be ambiguous, in which case it might be true for one interpretation and false for another.  Identify or create five declarative sentences in English that are ambiguous.  (This will probably require you to identify a homonym, a word that has more than one meaning but sounds or is written the same.  If you are stumped, consider slang:  many slang terms are ambiguous because they redefine existing words.  For example, in the 1980s, in some communities and contexts, to say something was “bad” meant that it was good; this obviously can create ambiguous sentences.)
  1. Often we can make a vague sentence precise by defining a specific interpretation of the meaning of an adjective, term, or other element of the language.  For example, we could make the sentence “Tom is tall” precise by specifying one person referred to by “Tom”, and also by defining “…is tall” as true of anyone 180 centimeters tall or taller.  For each of the five vague sentences that you identified or created for problem 1, describe how the interpretation of certain elements of the sentence could make the sentence no longer vague.
  1. Often we can make an ambiguous sentence precise by specifying which of the possible meanings we intend to use.  We could make the sentence, “Tom is by the pen” unambiguous by specifying which Tom we mean, and also defining “pen” to mean an infant play pen.  For each of the five ambiguous sentences that you identified or created for problem 2, identify and describe how the interpretation of certain elements of the sentence could make the sentence no longer ambiguous.
  1. Come up with five examples of your own of English sentences that are not declarative sentences.  (Examples can include commands, exclamations, and promises.)

[2] There is a complex issue here that we will discuss later.  But, in brief:  “is” is ambiguous; it has several meanings.  “Malcolm Little is” is a sentence if it is meant to assert the existence of Malcolm Little.  The “is” that appears in the sentence, “Malcolm Little is tall”, however, is what we call the “‘is’ of predication”.  In that sentence, “is” is used to assert that a property is had by Malcolm Little (the property of being tall); and here “is tall” is what we are calling a “predicate”.  So, the “is” of predication has no clear meaning when appearing without the rest of the predicate; it does not assert existence.

  •  
  • Was this article helpful?