AMBIGUITIES AND INCONGRUITIES
Ambiguous = open to more than one interpretation.
Clarity in writing is important. What we say should be clear and unambiguous.
I’m referring here to unintentional ambiguity. The type of ambiguity that makes us laugh or giggle. Or perhaps
we shake our head and think we would never make that mistake.
Headlines in newspapers can
often bring contradictory thoughts to our minds.
Jennifer Stewart is an Australian who publishes a weekly newsletter entitled “The Write Way”. (You can
subscribe here www.write101.com ) Her 18 November 2005 edition featured some doozies. For example:
Crack Found on Governor's Daughter
Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers
Head Seeks Arms
Prostitutes Appeal to Pope
Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over
Teacher Strikes Idle Kids
Refuse to Work after Death
Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant
Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges
Typhoon Rips Through
Cemetery; Hundreds Dead
Man Struck By Lightning Faces Battery Charge
New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group
Make Nutritious Snacks
Chef Throws His Heart into Helping Feed Needy
Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half
are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors
Perhaps you’ve seen similar in your local or national newspapers. What had the editors been drinking?
Advertisements can be another
source of mirth.
I noticed these two recently:
Sell your car online for only $9.90 a month.
Cheap car! Would you be satisfied with $9.90 a month for your car? It doesn’t even tell you how long you’ll
receive the monthly payments. LOL
TRY OUR VITAMINS –
YOU WON’T GET BETTER!
Trivia Quiz. Yes, my local newspaper
even introduced ambiguity into the trivia questions which my wife and I dutifully attempt each morning.
THE COFFS COAST ADVOCATE,
TUESDAY, MAY 9, 2006
What type of puppets’ movements are controlled by strings?
Answer = Marionettes.
That question is actually asking about the “type of movements”, not the type of puppet. The question would
be better framed as:
Which type of puppet requires strings to control its movements?
General Fiction. Here are some
instances of ambiguity I’ve found recently when reviewing/editing stories:
I went to the Post Office and spoke with the overweight clerk.
Was it a clerk who handles overweight postal items? Or do we assume it was an obese postal clerk?
When I was a teenager, I had my first big chest x-ray.
True, that’s what someone (female) wrote. Perhaps she was proud of her “big chest”.
They sat there, ten year old boys nervously awaiting their punishment.
No, it’s not referring to ten infants. They probably wouldn’t sit still for long, anyway. The meaning can
be revealed by the use of two judicious hyphens:
They sat there, ten-year-old boys nervously awaiting their punishment.
Go out and speak to random foreigners who don’t speak English for at least
One wonders why the “random foreigners” wouldn’t speak English during those two hours. Did they speak
English at other times?
… the white woman asked as they pulled up three legged stools
and sat at the lone table.
Another example of where the lack of a hyphen can produce ambiguity. Only two people were present during that part
of the story. Why did they need three legged-stools? Or were the stools three-legged?
Moral = Avoid ambiguities in your writing. Proofread to ensure your work is clear and concise.
Incongruent = dissimilar, contrasting
Recently these gems were circulated throughout The MuseItUp Club. I’ve called them “incongruities”
for want of a more appropriate tag.
I thought I’d share them here. They aptly illustrate the fun and games you can have with the English language.
First, same words, slightly
different pronunciation (in Australia) and different meanings.
1) The bandage was wound around the wound.
2) The farm was used to produce produce.
3) The dump was so
full that it had to refuse more refuse.
4) We must polish the Polish furniture.
Can you think of more? Let me know if you do.
Second, and this is really startling.
Read through the following paragraph. Olny srmat poelpe can.
“I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mind.
Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt
tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit
a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”
Woe is me! I uesd to tinhk slpeling was ipmorantt!
(My research indicates that jumbled passage first appeared on the Internet during September 2003.)
Moral = Incongruities are fun, but not always
appropriate in your stories.
My sincere acknowledgement to Jennifer Stewart, and thanks to all those who permitted the use of direct quotations
from their stories.
Reprinted, with revisions, from The Muse Marquee, June 2006.
From Down Under October 2008