Research Key

Ambiguity and misunderstanding in written communication

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Ambiguity is a linguistics phenomenon in which more than one meaning or deep structure, may be represented by the same expression, or surface structure. The same word or similar sounding words for example can have multiple meaning. It arises from different sources; phonology, syntax, and punctuation. In this task, ambiguity is the preoccupation of this task. It is a point where the sentences overlap with respect to their syntactic categories.



Punctuation is one of the major aspects that contribute to meaning in any writing. This is to say that, the correct use of punctuation in any form of written communication enhances meaning and fluency which facilitates comprehension and effective communication. However, when punctuation marks are used incorrectly, it generally alters the meaning and creates ambiguity in written discourse which leads to misunderstanding and ineffective communication. Ambiguity is a linguistic phenomenon in which more than one meaning or deep structure may be presented by the same expression, or surface structure. Ambiguity arises from many different sources; phonology, syntax, and punctuation. This research is to investigate how incorrect punctuation creates ambiguity and misunderstanding in written communication. This will be achieved by evaluating and examining punctuation use by the students of the University of Buea.


Punctuation is the use of punctuation marks within a written text to enhance meaning and fluency or to indicate aspect of pronunciations. It can also be defined as a set of symbols used in writing to help indicate something about the structure of sentences and assist readers in knowing when and where to change the rhythm or the stress pattern in their speech. Punctuation is one of the most important aspects of written communication. It is the basic features of any written discourse that gives meaning to the writing. Hence an error in punctuation can convey a completely different meaning as against the intended one thereby making communication incomprehensible and ambiguous. Therefore, it is important in any writing for one to know the functions of punctuation marks, their meaning and when to use them in order to provide a good piece of writing and most importantly to convey the correct message.

Over the years, writing systems were mostly logographic and syllabic which had no capitalization or punctuation such as Chinese and Maya Scripts ( Nevertheless, some or most of the writings were limited to business or business transactions. However, with the introduction of standard systems of punctuation, written discourse came to be seen from a new dimension where punctuation rules are strictly considered as the basic part of meaning or any written communication or work.

The introduction of standard systems of punctuation is generally attributed to Aldus Manutius and his grandson who popularized the ending of sentences with full stops (.), colons and occasional use of comma (,) and parenthesis ([]) ( However, the use of punctuation was not standardized until after the invention of the printing press, punctuation thus served as a guide in ascribing meaning in written discourse which aids and facilitates comprehension. Writing was invented by the Sumerians in about 3200 BC. Indians of Mexico invented it independently around 600BC, and the rise of Egyptian and Chinese systems may have been independent too. There are three basic forms of writing systems: logographic systems which use symbols to represent whole words; syllabified systems uses symbols to represent syllables; and alphabetic systems which use symbols to represent units of sounds. Briefly, homographs, homonyms and homophones help us understand the mechanics of good writing which is the combination of listening skills, reading skills, speaking skills, and writing skills

Following the invention of printing press , punctuation marks has developed over the years[such as; full stop, comma, colon, semi colon, hyphen, apostrophe, question mark, exclamation mark, brackets] to provide proper expression of meaning in writing as well as convey a well comprehensible written discourse.

Here are the major marks, separated into these categories

  • Boundary marking; full stop (.), colon (:).

  • Attitude marking: exclamation mark (!).

  • Labeling; apostrophe (`), question mark (?), and inverted comma/quotation mark (“”).

Incorrect punctuation may distort or affect meaning in writer discourse which creates ambiguity that hinders effective communication in written discourse. Thus this reveals that punctuation is a basic part of meaning in written communication and its incorrect use will no doubt create ambiguity.


This research is carried out as a result of many inconsistencies of meaning in written discourse of students in the University of Buea. Often words and phrases carry double meaning as a result of inappropriate use of punctuation marks. This study therefore selects students of a particular educational level in the University of Buea to investigate and proffer or give solution to the problem. This is because, despite student’s exposure to writing, they still have lapses in punctuating. It has been observe that apart from being shy and other psychological factors that prevent students from writing and talking, students who do not own and make good use of dictionaries register poor marks’ in writing and talking .Some of these problems are;

  1. Student’s inability to punctuate correctly.

  2. Difficulties to identify and give the uses of each punctuation mark.

  3. No use of punctuation marks at all in most cases.


This research is aimed at examining the punctuation knowledge of the level 300 students of the University of Buea.

  1. To investigate punctuation use and find out how punctuation makes communication effective.
  2. To examine how incorrect use of punctuation causes ambiguity.
  3. And to examine the effect of ambiguity on written communication.
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