2LD: Allusion & Ambiguity (And a bonus: garden path sentences)

Two more easy ones.

An allusion is a reference the author doesn’t explain, because the reader is expected to know of it.  The reference can be “a person, place, thing or idea of historical, cultural, literary or political significance.”

Verbally, allusions are made every time we say something is “so 1984“, meaning that the something resembles the dystopian world Orwell wrote in 1984.  When we say someone ran like Usain Bolt, we are making an allusion.  We expect the audience to know that “running like Usain Bolt” means “running very fast.”

Perhaps more interesting are visual allusions.  Take the iconic Obama Hope image:


The above image is in our cultural lexicon.  The below image, however…

…is not directly in our cultural lexicon.  But the design of this image inherently references the original.  This image can be viewed and “read” superficially, but there won’t be much to read.  Knowing that this is a reference to the Obama Hope image, though, allows us to read it as an allusion.  In this specific case, it is a parody allusion.  The Joker image could be commenting on the difference in goals the two leaders have, it could be poking fun at the original image (notice how it can do this without being the original image at all), or it could just be the product of a curious mind.  Either way, it is a visual parody allusion.


If I were to come up with a list of literary devices, ambiguity would not be one of them.  To me, it’s just a middle-school vocabulary word.  But it does make sense that it is a literary device: it’s another tool the writer has to add layers to his work, another lens with which the reader has to read the work.

An ambiguous sentence is a sentence that can be read in at least two different ways.  If I read the sentence “Her phone rang and she answered”, it could mean

1.  Her phone made a sound and she answered the phone
2.  Her phone made a sound and she answered something else (someone in the room)
3.  Her phone vibrated (or otherwise alerted her to a call) and she answered the phone
4.  Her phone vibrated (or otherwise…) and she answered something else

There could be more possible events.  The point is, is that the sentence has at least some ambiguity.

Ambiguity, like allegory, is a spectrum.  The above example typically is read/heard to mean #1.  #2, 3, and 4 are possible, but they are not probable.  However, an example, such as the following, has multiple meanings that are more closely probable:

“[I ran to the store] and [got back in time] [for the game.]”

The first part alone could mean:

1.  I physically ran to the store
2.  I drove to the store

The second part could mean:

a.  I got back to see the pre-game shows/events
b.  I got back to see the beginning of the game itself
c.  I got back before it was over

The third part could mean:

I.  board game
II.  sports on the TV
III.  actually at the sport event
IV.  poker game of No-Limit Texas Hold Em
V.  poker game of Five Card Draw
VI.  etc.

The sentence’s ambiguity decreases given the context, but all the readings are still technically possible.

One fun example of ambiguous sentences are “garden path sentences.”  These are sentences that prime the reader to expect ambiguity, but to guess the sentence is going one way, but it ends up going another.  Here are some examples from the Wikipedia page:

“The old man the boat”
“The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families”
“The government plans to raise taxes were defeated”

Here’s the excellent Dinosaur Comics explanation and example:


And here are some more examples:

  • The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.
  • The cotton clothing is made of grows in Mississippi.
  • The author wrote the novel was likely to be a best-seller.
  • I convinced her children are noisy.
  • The tomcat curled up on the cushion seemed friendly.
  • The man returned to his house was happy.
  • Mary gave the child the dog bit a bandaid.
  • The government plans to raise taxes were defeated.
  • The girl told the story cried.
  • I know the words to that song about the queen don’t rhyme.
  • The sour drink from the ocean.
  • That Jill is never here hurts.
  • The tycoon sold the offshore oil tracts for a lot of money wanted to kill JR.