Grammar Gremlins: Avoiding Ambiguity

Contrary to the average middle school student’s suspicions, grammar and punctuation are not inventions of the devil designed to torment us as we write our “what I did last summer” essays. The rules of language exist (and now and then change) to make meaning clear for both writer and reader.


Headline writing is an art unto itself, and frequently there’s no room in the space available for grammatical considerations. Here’s one that caught my eye the other day because it is, at first glance, so ambiguous: Russian contacts troubled ex-CIA chief.


Did a Russian contact a troubled ex-CIA chief? Or did contacts with Russians trouble an ex-CIA chief? Reading the story made it clear the latter meaning was intended. (And if one drills down another level, is that troubled fellow a former chief of the CIA, or some other sort of chief who has left the organization? In this case, the former.)


Fiction is not, thank goodness, burdened with the same constraints as a headline (or even a good, concise news article), but there are still ways to wander into unintended ambiguity. (Intentional ambiguity is an entirely different source of aggravation sometimes found at the very end of an otherwise gripping novel.)


Misplaced modifiers can amuse or confuse, sometimes both. Here’s one I ran across recently: Poorly educated, Mr. Smith sought a tutor for his daughter. Sounds like Mr. Smith had a poor education but wanted better for his daughter, doesn’t it? But in context, it really meant that Mr. Smith wanted a tutor for his poorly educated daughter.


Here’s another: In peak condition, John’s family knew he could take care of himself. Because the family was in peak condition (which is what that sentence says), they figured John was on top of things? No, in context, the family knew that John was in peak condition.


Commas are notorious for changing meanings, too, usually by their absence. There’s the famous Let’s eat Grandma, which we may hope should read Let’s eat, Grandma. (If you’re sticking with the first one, I don’t think I want to read your book.)


I recently ran across Shall we go in my lady? Let’s hope the author meant Shall we go in, my lady? Unless, perhaps, “my lady” is what the hero calls his car, but in this instance that did not appear to be the case.


And of course, we haven’t forgotten the Oxford comma, providing the difference between We had dinner with the Smiths, George and Emily (two guests, George and Emily Smith) and We had dinner with the Smiths, George, and Emily (possibly a table for six, with George, Emily, and an unspecified number of Smiths).


So remember to watch for those misplaced modifiers and missing commas. What you know you meant to say may not be what you put on the page.

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