8 thoughts on “Unambiguous Definition

  1. All natural language carries ambiguity. Most or all words have multiple meanings. Even when we have context information that can disambiguate most words, Cecile Spector, Saying One Thing, Meaning Another publishes an excellent book on ambiguity in natural English.

    To write unambiguously, write in an artificially simplified language, such as Z.

    [James’ Reply: If we all spoke and wrote in Z, we would be able to communicate unambiguously, but we would no longer be able to say much that was important while also being true and complete…]

  2. All natural language carries ambiguity.

    Isn’t it also the case that, per Godel, all formal languages are either ambiguous (inconsistent) or incomplete? If so, the Holy Grail of the complete, unambiguous specification would disprove Godel’s Theorem, right?

    —Michael B.

    [James’ Reply: I believe it’s incomplete, not ambiguous. Incomplete means that some statements that are true in the formal language are impossible to prove.] 

  3. (1) Not having two or more possible meanings. (2) …

    LOL! This may be worse than my frequent complaint about dictionary definitions that contain the word being defined.

    All natural language carries ambiguity.

    Does this then mean that there is no such thing as unambiguous?

    To write unambiguously, write in an artificially simplified language, such as Z.

    Doesn’t simplification increase ambiguity? When I think of simplifying language, I think of reducing the size of the vocabulary. Doing this requires that our fewer words model the same ideas as the larger vocabulary, or that we decide that things not specified will not be communicated. Either way, communication is hurt instead of helped. Plus, any time we involve human beings, there will be ambiguity because we will translate any language model into ideas. That translation process is influenced by each individual’s experience.

    Ben Simo

  4. This is why I am a huge fan of using both words and pictures. I try to keep both simple. I try to make both obvious and intuitive. Sometimes I do a good job, sometimes I don’t, but rarely do I capture the same ambiguity in both the text and the picture. If nothing else, this makes it much more likely that folks will be able to identify areas that are ambiguous (or confusing, or incomplete) to them. My hope is that shortly after that identification come the questions. 🙂


    Scott Barber
    President & Chief Technologist, PerfTestPlus, Inc.
    Executive Director, Association for Software Testing

    “If you can see it in your mind…
    you will find it in your life.”

  5. It’s a question of rounding. Something can be more or less ambiguous. Lacking a useful scale to measure ambiguity, we round off to either ambiguous or unambiguous. 🙂

    Except we don’t always agree on which way to round.

    Another lesson to take from the definition – sometimes the harder we try to clarify, the more muddy the message becomes.

  6. Ben Simo asked: Doesn’t simplification increase ambiguity?

    Simplification of encoding, given the same domain of ideas that are meant to be expressable in the language, increases ambiguity.

    The obvious way to decrease ambiguity is to reduce the problem space – reduce the concepts that are expressible in the language to a set which can be unambiguously expressed because the number of concepts is finite (and small enough that there can be one term per concept without making the terms too easily confused with each other).

    (Hence you can’t unambiguously express very much in a language that people have to be able to understand, compared to how much you can express well enough for many purposes in an ambiguous language, because people are generally better at coping with ambiguity than keeping straight a large number of precise details.)

  7. Michelle,

    Exactly. Simplifying language either increases ambiguity or reduces the problem space. Your comment reminded me of something I recently read about Rudolf Carnap’s attempts to reduce language to logical syntax. Carnap reported that when he and other members of the Vienna Circle attempted to communicate with the rules he defined, they found it lacking: “…we appointed one of us to shout “Mâ€? (for metaphysics) whenever an illegitimate sentence was uttered in our discussion. He was shouting “Mâ€? so much that we got sick of it and got him to shout “not-Mâ€? whenever we said something legitimate.”

    I believe that this central problem in translating human thought (mental models) to some simplified explicit language for processing my machines ensures that we software testers will never need to worry about being made obsolete.


  8. Sorry laughing far too much to enter into the debate. The word Ironic says it all.

    I wonder how many definitions there are for clarify???

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