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What Is Disambiguation?

A disambiguation is a noun that clarifies an ambiguity that may cause the listener to ask “in what sense?” For example, one may say “Zaid is better.” Although this is a complete sentence, a listener may ask, “in what sense?” And the response would be along the lines of “Zaid is better as a father” or “in terms of fatherhood” or the like. The terms “as a father” and “in terms of fatherhood” are what is known in Arabic as disambiguation. They don’t have to be there, but they help clarify something that could otherwise be misinterpreted.





disambiguation – a noun (اسم) used to clarify a possible ambiguity

Can any Type of Clarification / Explanation
Be Called Disambiguation?

Disambiguation must be a noun. This stipulation is significant because it excludes types of clarification that aren’t necessarily included within the technical definition of تمييز. For example: Assume someone makes the claim “men are better than women.” Someone may ask, “in what sense?” or “what do you mean?” The response to these inquiries will be at least an entire sentence if not an essayed discourse. This type of clarification is known as بيان (explanation) and it applies at the paragraph or discourse level of speech. تمييز, on the other hand, must be a single noun. Yes, if the answer was to be a single noun like عقلا (in terms of intellect), this would be تمييز.


Furthermore, تمييز doesn’t actually clarify something that is obscure or unclear or confusing, in actual fact. What it really does is pinpoint something that is vague, general, or ambiguous. In the example “Zaid is better,” there is nothing that is unclear. The term “as a father” doesn’t make the sentence clearer; it pinpoints its meaning. We can say that تمييز must clarify the ambiguity inherent in a word or in the context, not the ambiguity borne of the speaker’s lack of clarity or thoroughness.

What are the Grammatical Rules for Disambiguation?

Disambiguation typically follows the constraints listed below.


·         it is a single noun (or a phrase in highly rare cases)

·         it is indefinite (or definite in highly rare cases)

·         it is a static noun (جامد)

·         it is accusative

·         the agent that renders it accusative is the thing it’s clarifying

o   it usually follows its agent

o   it can preceded its agent if the agent allows this

o   if the agent doesn’t allow this, it can still be done for prosodic purposes


Consider, for example, the sentence أيكم أحسن عملا (which of you is better in deeds). The word أحسن (better) is ambiguous because being better occurs in many aspects and in many respects; better at hockey, better at cooking – better at what? To clarify the respect intended here, the word عملا (in deeds) was optionally used to pinpoint the intended meaning. Notice that it is a single, indefinite, static noun in the accusative case. Notice further that the thing that it is disambiguating is أحسن, and therefore أحسن is the agent of governance here.


Disambiguation is one of the details of Arabic sentences (one of the فضلات). The word عملا in the example above is a detail of the sentence in the sense that the sentence would be valid without it; although it would not be to the point. Disambiguation is included as one of the three grammatical positionings that resemble adverbs (مشبهات بالمفاعيل) – although it really doesn’t resemble adverbs all that much, nor is it necessarily governed by a verb.


Some typical translations used for disambiguation are as follows. We recycle the example “Zaid is better.”

·         as a father

·         in terms of being a father

·         in fatherhood

·         in the sense of fatherhood

·         insofar as fatherhood in concerned

·         etc

Types of Disambiguation

There are two types of disambiguation: the first is the true تمييز and it is that which clarifies the ambiguity in a word. And the other is that which clarifies the ambiguity in the relationship between two things. The table below gives several examples of the first type while subdividing it based on the nature of the ambiguous thing.


Let’s explain one of the examples below in detail. A sentence reads هذان منوان  (these are two ounces). There is some ambiguity here in the sense that we don’t know what the ounces are of. They could be ounces of sugar, salt, gold. The ambiguity here is inherent in the word ‘ounce’. We may choose to clear up the ambiguity or to leave the sentence as is. If we leave the sentence as is, it will be complete and accurate, but not precise. In order to render it precise, we add a تمييز to obtain هذان منوان عسلا (these are two ounces in honey). We could have used other structures such as هذان منوان من عسل. But that would not have been considered تمييز because it is not a single noun.


Nature of the Ambiguous thing



something measured




measured by square capacity

a field in date palms

جريب نخلا


measured by cubic capacity

a Saa’ in dates

صاع تمرا


measured by weight

two Manw in honey

منوان عسلا


11 stars (11 things in stars)

أحد عشر كوكبا

the interrogative كم

how many books do you own?

كم كتابا ملكت

expresses similitude

we have the like thereof in camels

إن لنا أمثالها إبلا

a term similar to the disambiguation, but more general

we have onagers in camels

إن لنا عيرا إبلا


The second type of disambiguation is one in which the disambiguation explains the manner in which one word applies to another. Take for example اشتعل الرأس شيبا (the head became ablaze in terms of agedness). The word شيبا (in terms of agedness) is explaining the manner in which the head became ablaze inasmuch as the head didn’t actually catch fire; rather, grey hair spread quickly and profusely over it.




تمييز محوَّل

that type of disambiguation that clarifies the relationship between two words


There are some enormous differences between the two types of disambiguation:


1.       The first type of disambiguation is expendable while the second type is not. In the example “I have 40 books,” the word “books” can be omitted and the resulting clause is a valid sentence – “I have 40”. The shorter sentence does leave room for misinterpretation, but it is still valid and correct. As another example, consider “there are two Manws in honey.” If we shorten this to “there are two Manws,” the sentence is both valid and correct.

However, in the example “We made the land gush forth inasmuch as the springs,” were we to remove the disambiguation we would be left with “We made the land gush forth” which is entirely incorrect. Although this is a valid sentence, it is not at all accurate. It doesn’t just leave room for misinterpretation, it completely warps the meaning.

In fact, the second type of disambiguation is not considered a detail of the sentence. It constitutes a top level component along with the subject and predicate.

2.       A disambiguation of the second type is said to have originally been مضاف towards the thing it is supposedly clarifying. In the example استعل الرأس شيبا, for instance, it is said that the original structure was اشتعل شيب الرأس (the agedness of the head became ablaze).


Given these differences, it becomes quite clear that تمييز محول has been called تمييز only at a literal level and not at a technical level. تمييز محول isn’t even part of the فضلات of a sentence like the regular تمييز is.


The table below gives a few example of this type of disambiguation while subdividing it.





تمييز محول عن الفاعل

the agedness of the head caught blaze

واشتعل الرأس شيبا

واشتعل شيب الرأس

تمييز محول عن المفعول

We caused the springs of the land to gush forth

وفجرنا الأرض عيونا

وفجرنا عيون الأرض

تمييز محول عن مضاف غيرهما

my wealth is greater than yours....

أنا أكثر منك مالا وأعز نفرا

مالي أكثر من مالك و...


The final subtype of تمييز مخول is that wherein an أفعل التفضيل begins a predicate and the predicate is a judgement on something other than what precedes the أفعل التفضيل. Let’s take the example above: أنا أكثر منك مالا (I am greater than you in wealth). أنا is the subject of the sentence and أكثر منك مالا is the predicate begun using the comparative أكثر. Moreover, the judgement of the predicate is on the wealth of أنا, not أنا itself. This is the case described by the third subtype.


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