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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Criminal Sentence 166: Ambiguity

A very similar sentence to one I read in a book recently:

"He sat against the arm of the chair, smoking and talking so low to Mary Ellen heard only his murmur."

When I first read this sentence, I did a double take because when I got to "heard," the sentence didn't seem to make sense. At first glance this sentence might be about one woman named Mary Ellen, but really it's about two: Mary and Ellen. A "that" would clear things right up and not confuse the reader:

"He sat against the arm of the chair, smoking and talking so low to Mary that Ellen heard only his murmur."

Be careful of potentially ambiguous sentences. I'll have another one for you tomorrow.

2 comments:

Jeff said...

Can'tt you also resolve this with a comma between Mary and Ellen?

The Sentence Sleuth said...

I think that would be OK since a comma could take the place of a "that."