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  1. #1
    Bob Kellogg
    Guest

    Beyond syntax and grammar

    Is it just a characteristic of English, or do other languages let you write ambiguous sentences?

    I want to share a discovery. It's appropriate in Writing Craft and shows why we need outside editing. Either that, or as is my case, ten or twelve passes and hope that you recognize the ambiguity in time. It reveals amateurism.

    Here's how I ended a chapter:

    They left me feeling insulted. I’m actually very complex.

    Now, I looked at that first sentence many times. Just now I realized that it could be interpreted two ways:
    1 - I felt insulted after they left me, or
    2 - They felt insulted while they were leaving.

    I don't want to make you paranoid or anything, but there's a good chance that many such sentences are even now hiding in your work!

    How did I fix the problem? I'm not yet sure. Currently toying with

    That left me feeling insulted. I’m actually very complex.

    But I dunno.

    Bob K.



  2. #2
    Glen T. Brock
    Guest

    Re: Beyond syntax and grammar

    Bob,
    What left you feeling insulted? You need an preceeding explanatory sentence. This sentence is more specific than They left me feeling insulted. However, if the insult was the result of a conversation between the individuals the former would be more appropriate.

    If you still think it needs work maybe you could consider using a gesture or aside to reinforce the character's remark. For example something like this:

    I must have winced. They left me feeling insulted. I'm actually very complex.

    That left me feeling insulted. I winced. Actually, I'm very complex.

    Just a few suggestions? Is this for the novel you're writing about the sculptor?

    Glen T. Brock

  3. #3
    Bob Kellogg
    Guest

    Thanks, Glen. I just found another.

    How about this sentence:

    I left her with an open-mouthed stare.

    Now, I meant that she had an open-mouthed stare when I left. I liked that way of saying it better, but again it's ambiguous. Who had the open-mouthed stare?

    That's one I can fix. Yes, this is about the sculptor. Here's the sequence that preceeds the first example and what I finally did to fix it:
    - - -
    Carly looked at me, then back at Nita. “Too complicated for me. Let’s go over to your place. I can teach you more about the computer.”

    “Talk about complicated.” Nita said, grinning.

    “Nonsense. Well, it may be complicated, but it’s not complex, like Mike’s life. Now that’s something to contemplate. In computer things, unlike real life, there’s always a logical explanation.”

    “See, that’s where you’re wrong, at least about Mike.” Nita put her hand around Carly’s shoulder and they walked out. “See, Mike’s a guy, and guys are very logical and predictable.”

    “Tell me more.”

    “Simple urges. Simple rewards are all they need.”

    “Really? That’s valuable information.”

    That was unfair. I’m actually very complex.
    - - -

    But point of this exercise is that it's very easy to create that kind of ambiguity when we're writing. WE know what we're trying to say.

    Mumble.

    Bob K.

  4. #4
    Bob Kellogg
    Guest

    Wrapping it up.

    Just to finish this topic with some neatness, here's the corrected paragraph and the one that preceeded it:
    - - -
    “Don’t delay me,” I said, “but I want you both to know that I’m meeting Jennifer the Decoy in a few minutes at the Red Pony in La Costa. If I don’t show up in an hour, send the cavalry.”

    She stood with an open-mouthed stare. Fortunately the car started. Otherwise, I had the feeling that Nita might have thrown herself in front of it to force more information from me.
    - - -

    So, if you didn't know before, now you know why so many passes are necessary during the editing phase. You can't look for every kind of problem at the same time.

    Bob K.

  5. #5
    Glen T. Brock
    Guest

    Re: Wrapping it up.

    Bob,

    How about this:

    She stood staring, open-mouthed.

    or

    She stood staring and open-mouthed.

    Glen T. Brock

  6. #6
    Keith Postler
    Guest

    Re: Wrapping it up.

    Bob,

    I'm not going to try and do any re-writes, but I would guess that writers who write in other languages also employ what I would call "literary license." I think that applies to your end sentence. It's not a big deal.

    --Keith

  7. #7
    Mike Fulton
    Guest

    Re: Wrapping it up (revisited)

    Bob,

    With the sentences (presumably) taken out of context, "left me" appears to be idiomatic and/or metaphoric language.

    Those about whom the narrator speaks may actually have left the narrator's proximity in a state of insult. However, "left me feeling" is a common American English idiom which connotes the idea that the narrator had an experience which made him feel as though he had been insulted.

    That one can interpret this sentence different ways is an interesting feature of all written languages as well as languages which are only spoken (though it seems that more problems occur in the written language because of the time allowed for analysis and other factors). This idiomatic interference is a common problem in advertising and newspaper publishing (especially in the headlines).

    Consider the following newspaper headline during the British Faulklands war:

    "British Left Waffles on Faulklands"

    To the uninformed reader of political news, this headline tells the reader that some British prople abandoned a popular breakfast food on the Faulkland Islands in presumably mass quantities.

    However, the astute reader of British political news will know that the "British Left" refers to a political faction, and that "Waffles" is a verb which means "talks nonsense" (British) or "changes position" (American). What appears to be a verb to some is a noun toothers, and vice versa.

    Now, consider the following headline from an advertisement in a family health journal:

    "Prescription Eye Drops Off Shelf"

    Ain't English great? Beats gibberish any day.

  8. #8
    Chris 444 Lockhart
    Guest

    Re: Wrapping it up (revisited)

    reminds me of a song by Elvis Costello.. with the following lines (paraphrased because I can't remember them exactly right now)

    Those continental sisters
    Their fingers have never seen working blisters
    Oh I know they've got their problems
    How I wish I was one of them


    I have always wondered if he meant that he wished he was one of the sisters, one of their fingers, or one of their problems.

    --------------
    http://www.glitterchildren.com

  9. #9
    mike fulton
    Guest

    Re: Wrapping it up (revisited)

    That's funny!

  10. #10
    Bob Kellogg
    Guest

    Great laughs

    Thanks for putting it in perspective, folks. In that spirit, I offer these English signs that have been kicking around the Internet for a while:

    Sign in a Laundromat:
    AUTOMATIC WASHING MACHINES:
    PLEASE REMOVE ALL YOUR CLOTHES WHEN THE LIGHT GOES OUT.

    Sign in a London department store:
    BARGAIN BASEMENT UPSTAIRS.

    In an office:
    WOULD THE PERSON WHO TOOK THE STEP LADDER YESTERDAY PLEASE BRING IT BACK OR FURTHER STEPS WILL BE TAKEN.

    Outside a farm:
    HORSE MANURE 50p PER PRE-PACKED BAG, 20p DO-IT-YOURSELF.

    In an office:
    AFTER TEA BREAK STAFF SHOULD EMPTY THE TEAPOT AND STAND UPSIDE DOWN ON THE DRAINING BOARD.

    On a church door:
    THIS IS THE GATE OF HEAVEN. ENTER YE ALL BY THIS DOOR.
    (THIS DOOR IS KEPT LOCKED BECAUSE OF THE DRAFT. PLEASE USE SIDE DOOR.)

    English sign in a German cafe:
    MOTHERS, PLEASE WASH YOUR HANS BEFORE EATING.

    Sign outside a new town hall which was to be opened by the Prince of Wales:
    THE TOWN HALL IS CLOSED UNTIL OPENING.
    IT WILL REMAIN CLOSED AFTER BEING OPENED
    OPEN TOMORROW.

    Outside a photographer's studio:
    OUT TO LUNCH: IF NOT BACK BY FIVE, OUT FOR DINNER ALSO.

    Seen at the side of a Sussex road:
    SLOW CATTLE CROSSING.
    NO OVERTAKING FOR THE NEXT 100 YRS.

    Outside a disco:
    SMARTS IS THE MOST EXCLUSIVE DISCO IN TOWN. EVERYONE WELCOME

    Sign warning of quicksand:
    QUICKSAND. ANY PERSON PASSING THIS POINT WILL BE DROWNED.
    BY ORDER OF THE DISTRICT COUNCIL.

    Notice sent to residents of a Whiltshire parish:
    DUE TO INCREASING PROBLEMS WITH LETTER LOUTS AND VANDALS WE MUST ASK ANYONE WITH RELATIVES BURIED IN THE GRAVEYARD TO DO THEIR BEST TO KEEP THEM IN ORDER.

    Notice in a dry cleaner's window:
    ANYONE LEAVING THEIR GARMENTS HERE FOR MORE THAN 30 DAYS WILL BE DISPOSED OF.

    Sign on motorway garage:
    PLEASE DO NOT SMOKE NEAR OUR PETROL PUMPS.
    YOUR LIFE MAY NOT BE WORTH MUCH BUT OUR PETROL IS.

    Notice in health food shop window:
    CLOSED DUE TO ILLNESS

    Spotted in a safari park:
    ELEPHANTS PLEASE STAY IN YOUR CAR

    Seen during a conference:
    FOR ANYONE WHO HAS CHILDREN AND DOESN'T KNOW IT, THERE IS A DAY CARE ON THE FIRST FLOOR.

    Notice in a field:
    THE FARMER ALLOWS WALKERS TO CROSS THE FIELD FOR FREE, BUT THE BULL CHARGES.
    RUNNING ACROSS THIS FIELD TAKES A MAN 12 SECONDS, BULL DOES IT IN 10.

    Message on a leaflet:
    IF YOU CANNOT READ, THIS LEAFLET WILL TELL YOU HOW TO GET LESSONS.

    Sign on a repair shop door:
    WE CAN REPAIR ANYTHING.
    (PLEASE KNOCK HARD ON THE DOOR - THE BELL DOESN'T WORK)

    Spotted in a toilet in a London office block:
    TOILET OUT OF ORDER. PLEASE USE FLOOR BELOW.

    ...Bob K.

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