The Virtues of Ambiguity

by johnmccreery

The following comment was written in response to a remark in a debate about ambiguity on lit-ideas. Some here may find it a topic worthy of note.


Ambiguity in language is just as much a useful tool as precision. There are times when each is to be preferred, but surely we use language to increase ambiguity as well as reduce it, even in non-poetic contexts.

Yes, indeed. Here’s an example.

In the early/mid 1990s I was recruited by Paul Guilfoile, the best account executive I ever worked with, to help with the pitches that won Hakuhodo Lintas the relaunch of Coke Light and, later, the launch of Caffeine Free Diet Coke in Japan. Together Paul and I worked out three important rules for working with Coca-Cola.

1. Use Coca-Cola language and respect their taboos. Back then, for example, the adjective “refreshing” could be applied only to classic red can Coke. Using their language the way they used it demonstrated our familiarity with their business and corporate culture.

2. Say something unexpected. Simply repeating what they told us would lead to their concluding, quite properly, that we were adding nothing of value to them. The art was in finding a new angle or line for development that they hadn’t thought of themselves, but presenting it to them in language that they would find familiar and, thus, reassuring.

3. This was Paul’s contribution, and I will always remember it. Appear to speak as concretely as possible—but be sure to leave some wiggle room. The rationale, in the context in which we worked, was persuasive: Planning and producing advertising, especially TV commercials, requires input from all sorts of people with different skills, and the better they are at their jobs the more they insist on their own “creative input.” So our presentations had to leave room for on-the-spot modifications, in location, direction, costuming, narration, dubbing, editing—modifications that would not be seen by the client as violating the promises made in the presentation storyboards. Changing, for instance, the cut of the model’s dress might be acceptable; replacing Coke red with a pinker or more orange red that caught the director’s or stylist’s eye—that was definitely out.

I have since come to believe that this sort of what we might call “strategic ambiguity” is an essential part of business and political activity, and one whose importance grows with the size of the organizations and the diversity of interests involved. I would even go so far as to suggest that it plays an important role in academic life as well. After all, to become a “big idea,” an idea has to start out with sufficient ambiguity to allow disciples and colleagues to develop and refine it. Perfect solutions are, I suspect, more often than not, simply forgotten, clearing the way for new debates.

Some of these speculations may seem over the top. But the example, at least, may serve to illustrate John Wager’s excellent point.

2 Comments to “The Virtues of Ambiguity”

  1. Many literary critics would claim ambiguity for literary criticism alone (cf. William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity), but it’s probably best regarded as a property of language exploited by a variety of users. This idea of “wiggle room” is extremely important for rhetorical or persuasive uses, for example; Michael Freeden’s work on conceptual history discusses the tactical uses of ambiguity in ideological language designed to reach a varied audience. In this case, “big ideas” name key concepts (e.g., ideology) that name a set of problems without resolving them.

  2. Dave, we are clearly on the same page when it comes to this topic. More later, when I can find some time and energy not consumed by the grandkids.

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