Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Eliminate That Ambiguity

One of the things I practice is the ambiguity exercise, which is, "can what I've written have a hidden meaning that I do not intend?"

Here's something that expands on that:

Lexical ambiguity
In the "Do you serve prawns?" question above, the ambiguity hinges on the fact that you can use the verb "serve" in more than one way - you can serve prawns to a person, but you can also serve the prawns themselves. This type of ambiguity - where one word can have two or more meanings - is known as lexical ambiguity. It isn't just verbs that can do double duty in this way, as the following examples of lexical ambiguity show:

  • Let us remove your shorts - sign on an electrician's van
  • A troupe of Girl Guides went for a tramp in the woods (actually, this one is a double yolker when it comes to ambiguity - both the phrase "went for" and the noun "tramp" can have at least two meanings…)
  • Mrs Gandhi stoned at rally in India - newspaper headline
Syntactic ambiguity 
It is possible for a sentence or phrase to be ambiguous when none of the words has a double meaning. In this case, the ambiguity arises because the words are in the wrong order or some of them are missing.  This is known as syntactic ambiguity.  Here are some examples:

  • Always wait for the green man to cross - This is an actual road sign near where I live! (A better way to phrase it would have been Always wait for the green man to appear before you cross the road, but perhaps Kent County Council didn't have a big enough sign for that.)
  • For sale: antique desk suitable for lady with thick legs and large drawers - Better (but less funny) to have written For sale: antique desk with thick legs and large drawers. Suitable for lady. Notice the extra punctuation - see below for more on this subject.
There's more at the link, but I didn't want to copy too much of it. You never want to put yourself in a position where ambiguity ruins something into which you've just put a lot of effort.

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