As a writer, it never fails to amuse me when I see a collection of sentences which have been written ambiguously. It’s often plain to see the intended inflection of the message but the way it’s put together and punctuated can easily change how the message is interpreted. There are several thousand examples about, some of which are very funny; but as we write our prose, it’s so very easy to fall foul of them because, although, we have the complete picture, in our heads, of what we want to say, our reader doesn’t have that advantage. For example:
- I am pleased to say that this candidate is a former colleague of mine.
- In my opinion, you will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you.
- I would urge you to waste no time in making this candidate an offer of employment.
- ‘FINE FOR PARKING HERE’ – read a sign on a piece of spare land
It’s very easy to loose sight of this as we construct and build suspense and credibility in our plots and dialogue; invent new and exiting characters for the reader to love. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the top 500 used words have an average of 23 meanings for each one; little wonder we sometimes fall into the ambiguity trap. As we ponder our beautiful language remember this:
English is a stupid language.
There is no egg in the eggplant.
No ham in the hamburger.
And neither pine nor apple in the pineapple.
English muffins were not invented in England.
French fries were not invented in France.
We sometimes take English for granted.
But if we examine it closely
We find that quicksand takes you down slowly.
Boxing rings are square.
And a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.
If writers write, how come fingers don’t fing.
If the plural of tooth is teeth,
Shouldn’t the plural of phone booth be phone beeth?
If the teacher taught,
Why didn’t the preacher praught.
If a vegetarian eats vegetables
What does a humanitarian eat!?
Why do people recite at a play
Yet play at a recital?
You have to marvel at the unique lunacy
Of a language where a house can burn up as
It burns down
And you fill in a form
By filling it out
And a bell is only heard once it goes!
English was invented by people, not computers
And it reflects the creativity of the human race
(Which of course isn’t a race at all)
That is why:
When the stars are out they are visible
But when the lights are out they are invisible
And why it is that when I wind up my watch
it starts but when I wind up this poem
I have no idea who wrote the above poem but I thought it worth sharing just to highlight the vagaries of our language.
I wanted to take this opportunity to present the present rather than desert in the desert and to remember the sign posted above the machines in a launderette which said:
AUTOMATIC WASHING MACHINES: PLEASE REMOVE ALL YOUR CLOTHES WHEN THE LIGHT GOES OUT