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If Confusion Is The First Step To Knowledge, I Must Be A Genius* Or Mournful Teacherish Whinges About The Ambiguity Of Unclear Reference

November 13, 2010

I pretty much try to stay in a constant state of confusion just because of the expression it leaves on my face.
• Johnny Depp

Pronouns are extremely handy. They protect a writer from endless repetition of nouns: “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny Lorac’s crayons so Mij and Lenny could color” is much less cumbersome when it’s “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny her crayons so they could color.” Unfortunately, this kind of sentence can drift into ambiguity: “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny their crayons so they could color” is an altogether different box of crayons indeed. And a level of complexity is added to the whole thing because, after all, we are probably wondering if generous Lorac is going to color with M and L. If so, this probably should read “Lorac gave Mij and Lenny her crayons so they could color with her.” Sentences are tangled webs just waiting to wrap writers in the sticky web of confusion.

For clarity when you’re writing, you need to be certain that it’s evident from the progression of your sentence to whom–or what or where or other-noun-wise–your pronoun makes reference. Here’s an example taken from The Big Book of Confusing, Vague, and Uncertain Tales Desperately in Need of Clarification Created for the Edification of Children Everywhere (Algernon P. & Merrypat E. Prindlesnap, 1884)**.

Once upon a time there were three little pigs named Oink, Grunt, and Squeal, and a big bad wolf named Gotcha. They had an even littler brother too and he called him Scaredyhoof for he was afraid of just about everything and often ran away at the first hint of danger. He was particularly afraid of him. This is their story:

Houses needed to be built. Immediately. He didn’t know what he was going to do. They didn’t know what he was going to do. None of them knew what they were going to do. Even the people in the town knew that something had to be done about the situation, and fast, but they didn’t know what they were going to do either. He was uncertain too. And everybody was frightfully scared of what loomed ahead.

Certainly there was danger and they had reason to be afraid. They knew it would soon be winter and they needed shelter from the cold as well as food to eat once the endless snows of winter descended on the valley where they lived. There were other dangers too. So they separated and each went their own way, looking for what was needed. One of them took their most recent acquisitions down to the meadow to the woodchopper’s shed where they often stored such things. He often used it for storage too.

He wasn’t happy with this hiding place. They didn’t want any of them to find the bricks and sticks and straw and stones and didn’t know what to do with them so they couldn’t find them. And they needed to hide him too.  So he took them instead to a cave in the woods. There, he thought, they would be safe, and if he were careful, he wouldn’t be able to find them.

He decided to build a house for them and asked him to help, but they couldn’t find the materials. They weren’t around to tell him where to look, so he asked him to help find them. They weren’t anywhere they looked and while they were looking, he came looking for them.

Well, that’s aplenty. You get the picture, I’m sure, but just in case, answer the following questions:

Who hid the materials?

Who was looking for the materials?

Who came looking for whom?

Always check your writing to make sure that pronouns such as he, she, it, they, that, which, and who that you’re using to replace another word refer clearly to the word they are meant to replace. This word is known as the pronoun’s antecedent. The antecedent should precede the pronoun in the current or previous sentence. Once other nouns intervene and too much distance develops between the pronoun and its antecedent, the waters of clarity become muddied (or the web becomes stickier–take your pick). Beware as well of creating problems because you are referring to a word that is implied rather than explicitly stated. (You likely know what you’re talking about, but your reader may not.)

In an effort to avoid the awkwardness engendered (pun intended) by non-sexist language, some speakers and writers replace constructions like she and he or hers and his with them and they and theirs. This can lead to ambiguity. “The student turned in their fundraising money,” for example, is unclear. Whose money did the student turn in? There’s no way to be certain from this sentence whether the student was handing in her or his contribution or was in charge of the contributions of the entire class.

When you’re done writing something—emails to essays to everything else—what are your strategies for making sure you’ve said what you intended to say?

There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words.
• Thomas Reid

* Thanks to Larry Leissner for the title quotation.

** The Prindlesnaps were a brother and sister whose works were well-known in the schoolrooms of late nineteenth century England. Their opus, Commas, Periods, Semi-Colons, and the Odious Exclamation Point: A Study of Punctuation Abuses in Fairy Tales (1897), is no longer in print, although almost any reader would benefit from its study. Should you locate a copy of this rare tome, consider yourself fortunate indeed!

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