“Ambiguous” vs. “Ambivalent”

Just like people assume family members are inherently similar because they are related, people assume the same things about words: if they have similar spellings and soundings, they must be alike. As it is with people, the similarities between some related words that look and sound the same end there.

Take ambiguous and ambivalent for example. They share the Latin prefix ambi-, which means “both,” so it is easy to see how they can be mixed up. However, the duality pertains to very different things.

What does ambivalent mean?

To be ambivalent (adjective) about something means that one has “mixed or confusing feelings” about it. Being truly ambivalent is neither a negative nor positive feeling; a person who is experiencing ambivalence is likely to be utterly neutral.

It’s also a fairly “new” word; it was coined and utilized by the field of psychology in 1916, but hit common usage just a decade later. In action, it looks a little something like this: Even though they just broke up, she was ambivalent about attending his party.

What does ambiguous mean?

Experiencing something that is ambiguous means that the situation could be “open to several meanings” and therefore is unclear. Etymologically speaking, ambiguous dates back to the 1520s and is derived from the Latin ambiguus meaning “having double meaning, shifting, changeable, doubtful.”

To describe something—whether it is an indistinguishable silhouette or a befuddling sentence—as ambiguous means that you weren’t truly presented with enough information to make a decision. For instance: He specifically used ambiguous words so that he wouldn’t have to take a stand at this point in the campaign.

What is the difference?

Between these two words, the biggest difference lies in the intention.

Use ambivalent as a descriptor if all of the information has been provided on the subject and it still generates a neutral feeling.

For anyone dealing with a situation that is totally unclear, and they don’t know how they should think, feel, or interpret it, the best word to use is ambiguous.

Pop quiz: can you fill in the blanks?

Which word would you use in these sentences?

  • I have to admit, I was ______ about the restaurant Ernesto chose but found myself surprisingly impressed by it.
  • Critics interpreted the _______ movie title in a variety of ways; the director has yet to clarify what it means in the context of her works.
  • I found her ______ attitude puzzling. Everyone else in the room took turns  debating the topic, and she didn’t say one word.
  • The students asked for clarification on the assignment as they were confused by the ______ instructions in the book.

(One and three use ambivalent; the other two demonstrate how to use ambiguous.)

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