Friday, 31 July 2015

Today's blog post is just a little rant about ambiguity, and not the good kind. Ambiguity is an important part of writing when used deliberately, particularly in terms of narration. One can create confusion in the reader's mind, give them a sense of multiple possibilities of outcome, suggest something without ever confirming it.

But this blog isn't talking about deliberate ambiguity, it's talking about poor sentence structure that leads to unintentional ambiguity. Of course sometimes this can just be amusing, but often its effects are more sinister, leading the reader to misinterpret or misattribute an action.

Let's start with the humorous though, I read this sentence in a book only the other day:

"My heart was beating a hundred miles an hour in my head."

This really made me chuckle, clearly I knew what the writer meant but still the sentence structure logically leads you to think the character's heart is in his head. This could have easily been cleared up in the editing phase to something like "In my mind, I felt like my heart was beating a hundred miles an hour."

The above example is a dangling modifier, specifically a non-participle modifier, the most famous example of which is perhaps this classic from Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers:

"One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know."

As I mentioned though, sometimes the ambiguity of language or sentence structure can cause problems. Often this comes from misattributing who, of the many people in the sentence, the behaviour or description is referring to. I come across this a lot in the books I read, surprisingly often in fact as I think it's pretty clear at a cursory glance that the sentence is ambiguous.

"Jenny bought Sally a new guitar, she was delighted, her friend less so, but she didn't tell anyone."

I've made this example as confusing as possible but it's indicative of the sort of long multi-clause sentence that causes problems. From the above example it's hard to tell if Jenny or Sally was delighted, who was less so, and even harder to work out who didn't tell anyone, the gift giver or receiver.

There are many ways around these dangling modifiers, usually they involve adding names in again, separating clauses more clearly, adding more commas. Sometimes they can make a sentence cumbersome but to avoid ambiguity it's nonetheless imperative. Alternatively one can often rewrite the paragraph altogether, maybe using dialogue.

I'll leave you with my favourite ambiguous sentence:

"Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana."

...and also one from this week's Crimewatch in the UK:

"A woman, found murdered by her 14 year old daughter."

How that made it into the final script I'll never know, incidentally in case you were wondering, the 14 year old found her mother, she didn't murder her!


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