Friday, 16 September 2011

Did you really mean that? (1)

We can sometimes be the poorest judges of our own writing. While we may think something we've written is crystal clear, someone else reading it may completely misunderstand what we've said.

One of the main causes of misunderstanding is ambiguity in the text – perhaps because of the presence of one or more homonyms, or because the phrase or sentence construction lends itself to different interpretations, especially when the writer has not paid careful attention to punctuation.

I suspect that in most cases the average reader reading a potentially ambiguous text in everyday life may not even realise that ambiguity lurks there and will read it the way the average writer had intended it to be understood. This would happen because in practice the overall context or situation usually eliminates the less likely or unintended interpretation.

In many cases the second possible reading, if spotted, may turn out to be quite amusing, a humorous meaning not intentionally created by the writer, like this bit of advice to parents to encourage juvenile participation in the kitchen: "Include your children when baking cookies", or this paint tin instruction: "For best results, put on two coats."

Sometimes writers will deliberately create ambiguity in order to achieve a certain effect. Chief among such wordsmiths are clever (mischievous?) newspaper subeditors who take delight in writing ambiguous, playful headlines, even with regard to very serious subjects (although I do sometimes wonder whether the wording of some ambiguous headlines was

The following examples of ambiguous headlines are from a collection of more than fifty sent to me by someone a few months ago:

• Police campaign to run down jaywalkers
• Thief gets nine months in violin case
• Iraqi head seeks arms
• Prostitutes appeal to pope
• British left waffles on Falkland Islands
• Lung cancer in women mushrooms
• Juvenile court will try shooting accused
• Drunken drivers paid R1 000
• Red tape holds up new bridge
• Matric failures cut in half
• New vaccine may contain rabies
• Hospitals sued by 7 foot doctors
• Sex education delayed, teachers request training.

Many jokes, funny one-liners and riddles depend on ambiguity for their humorous effect. A golden oldie that comes to mind is the quip about not expecting tranquilisers to work unless you diligently follow the instruction on the bottle that says "Keep away from children".

(To be continued)    –ws

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