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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Writer Mag Column 14: Ambiguous Sentences

Don't double your meaning: Avoid ambiguous sentences

Other than writing a boring story, the worst thing a writer can do is write a confusing one. Your thoughts swim around in your head, and it's your job to make sure those thoughts come out onto the page in the way you intended. You certainly don't want to write an ambiguous sentence, one that has two or more possible meanings.

An ambiguous sentence leads to two problems. First, your readers have to read your work at least twice in order to get your meaning. Second, your readers may chuckle if your sentence is accidentally amusing. Neither problem endears you to readers. Granted, it's hard to catch your own ambiguous sentences, but don't worry. I have identified four main risk factors that you can watch out for:

1. Sentences with adverbs. If your sentence contains more verbs than adverbs—say, two verbs and one adverb—you'll have to be careful where you put your adverb. If an adverb could attach to either verb, readers could misinterpret your meaning. This Criminal Sentence made me laugh:

I looked at every teenager walking down the road differently.

The writer was trying to say that the "I" of the sentence was looking at teenagers differently, but instead the sentence seems to be saying that every teenager was walking differently. I know I'm getting old, but I think I would have noticed a bunch of teenagers who were walking differently. Anyway, the writer put the adverb in an ambiguous place. Let's make it clear:

I looked differently at every teenager walking down the road.

This sentence is no longer criminal, though I suppose I'm still over the hill.

2. Sentences that contain the word "and." The word "and" joins things together, but sometimes it's not clear which items are being joined. Take this Criminal Partial Sentence, which I saw outside a burger joint:

Burger and peach shake: $2.99

My first reaction to this as I drove by was: Ewww, a shake made with burgers? Of course, I knew that the sign was advertising two items: a shake and a burger. More customers would have stopped in if the sign had been less ambiguous:

Peach shake and a burger: $2.99

That is no longer gross.

Here's another Criminal Sentence that illustrates the problem with "and":

They screamed when he came near them and bolted.

I'm not sure whether the writer means they screamed and then they bolted, or he came near them and then he bolted. Readers can usually puzzle things out based on the context, but don't make your audience do your work for you. Instead, make it clear. Depending on your intended meaning, rewrite:

They screamed and then bolted when he came near them.
They screamed when he first came near them and then bolted.

Readers no longer need to be confused, though I suppose some screaming is in order either way.

3. Sentences that could benefit from a comma. Commas, which separate items, are helpful little guys. In certain cases, if you don't use a comma to separate words, readers will have trouble parsing the sentence. I did a double take when I read this Criminal Sentence:

When we spoke before you gave me most of what I needed.

The word "before" is causing trouble here. Readers could read the sentence as "we spoke before you gave me [something]." If they did, the rest of the sentence would not make sense, so they'd have to back up and reread it. Only then would they realize that "When we spoke before" goes together. A comma would smooth the sentence for readers, saving them from having to wonder what goes with what. Here's a clearer version:

When we spoke before, you gave me most of what I needed.

Here's another Criminal Sentence that I had to read twice:

Besides these kinds of adventures are best shared with friends.

I thought at first that "Besides these kinds of adventures" went together. Nope. "Besides" is just by itself here, and a comma would instantly clarify things:

Besides, these kinds of adventures are best shared with friends.

Friends can share commas, too.

4. Sentences with prepositional phrases. I've complained about prepositional phrases in other columns. They often lead to misplaced modifiers because they come between the noun and the clause modifying it. Sometimes a misplaced prepositional phrase can lead to a sentence that seems ambiguous, as happens in this amusing sentence:

There are letters from Confederate soldiers lying on a Federal desk.

For a minute it appears that soldiers are lying on a desk, but we know that letters, not the soldiers, are. The prepositional phrase "from Confederate soldiers" needs to be put in its place so that "lying on a Federal desk" is not bunched up against "soldiers." Let's be more precise and less humorous:

Letters from Confederate soldiers are lying on a Federal desk.

So, watch for misplaced modifiers like the one in the "soldiers" sentence. But also be aware that even if there's no misplaced modifier, a preposition may attach ambiguously to something, as here:

He complied with bad humor.

"Complied" seems to go alongside "with," as in "He complied with the rules." However, when we get to "bad humor," we realize we are mistaken. "With" goes with "bad humor," not "complied." It would be unambiguous to write it this way:

With bad humor, he complied.

Now that you know some ways to avoid ambiguous sentences, please make these five Criminal Sentences clearer:

1. We found the address that he gave me without difficulty.
2. A backpack with a laptop and a vaccination card was recovered.
3. All autumn essays floated into my computer inbox.
4. But I know for sure that unless we try our chances will be zero.
5. He's been tracking criminals with a microscope for quite a number of years.

Send your unambiguous rewrites to and I'll check if you've avoided double trouble.

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