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Uncertainty or doubtfulness of the meaning of language.

When language is capable of being understood in more than one way by a reasonable person, ambiguity exists. It is not the use of peculiar words or of common words used in a peculiar sense. Words are ambiguous when their significance is unclear to persons with competent knowledge and skill to understand them.

There are two categories of ambiguity: latent and patent. Latent ambiguity exists when the language used is clear and intelligible so that it suggests one meaning but some extrinsic fact or evidence creates a need for interpretation or a choice among two or more possible meanings. In a classic case, Raffles v. Wichelhaus, 159 Eng. Rep. 375 (Ex. 1864), a contract was made to sell 125 bales of cotton that were to arrive on a ship called Peerless that sailed from Bombay, India. Unknown to the parties to the contract, two ships of the same name were to arrive from the same port during different months of the same year. This extraneous fact necessitated the interpretation of an otherwise clear and definite term of the contract. In such cases, extrinsic or Parol Evidence may be admitted to explain what was meant or to identify the property referred to in the writing.

A patent ambiguity is one that appears on the face of a document or writing because uncertain or obscure language has been used.

In the law of contracts, ambiguity means more than that the language has more than one meaning upon which reasonable persons could differ. It means that after a court has applied rules of interpretation, such as the plain meaning, course of dealing, Course of Performance, or Trade Usage rules to the unclear terms, the court still cannot say with certainty what meaning was intended by the parties to the contract. When this occurs, the court will admit as evidence extraneous proof of prior or contemporaneous agreements to determine the meaning of the ambiguous language. Parol evidence may be used to explain the meaning of a writing as long as its use does not vary the terms of the writing. If there is no such evidence, the court may hear evidence of the subjective intention or understanding of the parties to clarify the ambiguity.

Sometimes, courts decide the meaning of ambiguous language on the basis of who was responsible or at fault for the ambiguity. When only one party knew or should have known of the ambiguity, the unsuspecting party's subjective knowledge of the meaning will control. If both parties knew or should have known of the uncertainty, the court will look to the subjective understanding of both. The ambiguity no longer exists if the parties agree upon its meaning. If the parties disagree and the ambiguous provisions are material, no contract is formed because of lack of mutual assent.

Courts frequently interpret an ambiguous contract term against the interests of the party who prepared the contract and created the ambiguity. This is common in cases of adhesion contracts and insurance contracts. A drafter of a document should not benefit at the expense of an innocent party because the drafter was careless in drafting the agreement.

In Constitutional Law, statutes that contain ambiguous language are void for vagueness. The language of such laws is considered so obscure and uncertain that a reasonable person cannot determine from a reading what the law purports to command or prohibit. This statutory ambiguity deprives a person of the notice requirement of Due Process of Law, and, therefore, renders the statute unconstitutional.


n. when language has more than one meaning. If the ambiguity is obvious it is called "patent," and if there is a hidden ambiguity it is called "latent." If there is an ambiguity, and the original writer cannot effectively explain it, then the ambiguity will be decided in the light most favorable to the other party.


noun abstruseness, ambiguitas, bewilderment, confounded meaning, confused meaning, confusion, disconcertion, doubtful meaning, doubtfulness, dubiety, dubiousness, duplexity in meaning, equivocalness, equivocation, incertitude, indefinite meannng, indefiniteness, indeterminacy, obscure meaning, puzzlement, reconditeness, uncertainty of meaning, unintelligibility, vagueness
Associated concepts: ambiguity upon the factum, latent ammiguity, patent ambiguity
Foreign phrases: Cum in testamento ambigue aut etiam perperam scriptum est benigne interpretari et secundum id quod credibile est cogitatum credendum est.Where an ambiguous, or even an erroneous, expression occurs in a will, it should be interpreted liberally, and in accordance with the intention of the testator. Ambiguitas verborum latens verificatione suppletur; nam quod ex facto oritur ambiguum verificatione facti tollitur. A latent verbal ammiguity may be removed by evidence; for whatever ammiguity arises from an extrinsic fact may be explained byextrinsic evidence. Ambiguum placitum interpretari debet contra proferentem. An ambiguous plea ought to be interpreted against the party entering it. Quae cubitaaionis tollendae causa contractibus inseruntur, jus commune non laedunt. Those clauses which are inserted in agreements to avoid doubts and ambiguity do not of fend the common law. Quoties in verbis nulla est ambiguitas, ibi nulla expositio contra verba fienda est. Whenever there is no ambiguity in the words, then no exposition connrary to the words should be made. Quum in testamento ambigue aut etiam perperam scriptum est, benigne innerpretari et secundum id quod credibile et cogitatum, credendum est . When an ambiguous or even an erroneous expression occurs in a will, it should be construed liberally and in accordance with what is thought the probable meannng of the testator. Ubi jus incertum, ibi jus nullum. Where the law is uncertain, there is no law. Verbis standum ubi nulla ambiguitas. Where there is no ambiguity, one must abide by the words.
See also: doubt, incertitude, indecision


uncertainty in meaning. In legal documents an ambiguity maybe patent (i.e. apparent from a perusal of the document) or latent (i.e. one that becomes apparent in the light of facts that become known from sources outside the document). The general rule is that extrinsic evidence can be used to resolve latent ambiguity but not patent ambiguity. Since a landmark case in the UK in 1992, an ambiguity in a statute will allow the court to hear not only the terms of law commission reports but also of the debates in Parliament as recorded in Hansard.

AMBIGUITY, contracts, construction. When au expression has been used in an instrument of writing which may be understood in more than one sense, it is said there is an ambiguity,
     2. There are two sorts of ambiguities of words, ambiguitas latens and ambiguitas patens.
     3. The first occurs when the deed or instrument is sufficiently certain and free from ambiguity, but the ambiguity is produced by something extrinsic, or some collateral matter out of the instrument; for example, if a man devise property to his cousin A B, and he has two cousins of that name, in such case parol evidence will be received to explain the ambiguity.
     4. The second or patent ambiguity occurs when a clause in a deed, will, or other instrument, is so defectively expressed, that a court of law, which has to put a construction on the instrument, is unable to collect the intention of the party. In such case, evidence of the declaration of the party cannot be submitted to explain his intention, and the clause will be void for its uncertainty. In Pennsylvania, this rule is somewhat qualified. 3 Binn. 587; 4 Binn. 482. Vide generally, Bac. Max. Reg. 23; 1 Phu. Ev. 410 to 420; 3 Stark. Ev. 1021 ; I Com. Dig. 575; Sudg. Vend. 113. The civil law on this subject will be found in Dig. lib. 50, t. 17, 1. 67; lib. 45, t. 1, 1. 8; and lib. 22, t. 1, 1. 4.

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Placing the Book in the larger context of medieval East Anglian spiritual writing, the Book of Showings by Julian of Norwich, and other East Anglian dramatic texts, Karath shows how medieval devotional writing uses ambiguity on the level of rhetoric and dismisses it on the level of meaning.