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Arguing over TextsThe Rhetoric of Interpretation$
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Martin Camper

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780190677121

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2017

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190677121.001.0001

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(p.14) 2 Ambiguity
Arguing over Texts

Martin Camper

Oxford University Press

Chapter 2 examines disputes over ambiguity, in which interpreters argue over a single linguistic form that evokes distinct alternative meanings. The chapter classifies three types of ambiguity according to contemporary linguistic theory, details common lines of argument for supporting interpretations of ambiguities, and explains the differences between interpreting an ambiguity as unintentional versus intentional. The chapter offers an extended rhetorical analysis of the controversy surrounding Phillis Wheatley’s 1768 poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” which has been criticized as an expression of racial self-hatred. Literary critics in defense of Wheatley have argued the poem contains intentional ambiguities that covertly express Wheatley’s anti-racist and slavery views. This case illustrates that arguers can claim a text contains a coded message by uncovering additional meanings through its ambiguities. The various examples in the chapter highlight the important role ambiguity plays in shifting our interpretations of texts and their authors.

Keywords:   ambiguity, lexical ambiguity, syntactic ambiguity, pragmatic ambiguity, deliberate ambiguity, Phillis Wheatley, authorial intention, literary interpretation, African American literature, racial slavery

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