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The Pun Also Rises

by James Powell

When proofreading your work, be on the lookout for unintended ambiguity. Some hyphen-shy writers, for instance, will simply insert a space between prefixes and nouns. This leads to expressions such as extra marital affairs when the writer had meant extra-marital affairs.

Even in poetry, where ambiguity enriches the echoing intricacy of meaning, unintended ambiguity often surprises writers, as in this instructive example from the long tradition of Chinese versifying, where one poet suffering writer’s block wrote about inspiration:

I search for it all day, in vain.
Then, at last, it comes to me by itself.

One of his colleagues quipped that it is the description of a lost cat.

Below, I offer a brief typology of language ambiguities—lexical, structural, semantic, and pragmatic—in hopes that it will aid you in recognizing and thus getting rid of these uninvited guests.

Lexical ambiguity arises when a single word has more than one meaning that makes sense in the context. Is “Stay away from the range” a warning to livestock poachers or to children around a hot stove? Does “The court was packed” refer to a legal drama in which the jury was rigged or to an overcrowded royal gathering?

Structural ambiguity, also known as syntactic ambiguity, arises when sentences are parsed in different ways. For instance, in “He saw the crane fly outside,” is the writer referring to the crane fly (a type of fly resembling a mosquito) or a bird? Similarly, in “The leopard was spotted,” the writer may be referring to sighting a leopard that, after all, had no spots.

Examples of semantic ambiguity are “There was not a single man at the party” and “Children make nutritious snacks.”

And, to finish where we began, with extra-marital meanings, consider “John loves his wife and so does Bill.” This is an example of practical ambiguity. If you don’t see the problem, hire an editor immediately, especially if you are writing a legal document.