Stressful ambiguity


I once asked a solicitor which of two possible meanings he intended for a sentence in a document he was asking my client to sign. He replied: "It's perfectly clear." And he was so sure that he was right (or so timid about amending his standard text) that he refused to answer my question until I told him that my clients would not sign his document until the point had been resolved.

This failure to see ambiguity even when it is pointed out is common. Synapses are like switching-points on a railway line, and our attention is funnelled by inertia along the route it used before.

This principle is not confined to language. There is a well-known picture which shows what can be either a vase or two human faces looking at each other, but in Clarity for Lawyers I illustrated the point with another ambiguous picture, which some people see as an attractive young woman and others as an unattractive old one. Which you see depends on how your brain happens to arrange the raw data, a process normally carried out quickly and unconsciously and which is therefore difficult to control.

This is old ground. But as many lawyers cling tenaciously to the discredited view that their serpentine word-manipulations defeat ambiguity I'd like to expand on what I've said in the past by offering more examples of how the inflection and pauses of speech, lost in writing, resolve ambiguities without us being aware of what is happening.

  1. A promotional email from a decorator said that the first 50 customers to contract his services in reply to the email could have a free weekend in his holiday cottage, and he added:

    I will be too busy decorating for you to use my cottage anyway.

    Writing this, he presumably heard himself say:

    I will be too busy decorating for you / to use my cottage anyway.

    (The virgule [/] indicates the phrasing, perhaps marked in speech by a slight hesitation for which we have no punctuation mark, and the bold type indicates a stressed syllable.)

    But on first reading I heard him say:

    I will be too busy decorating / for you to use my cottage anyway.

    The content made it clear that I had misread it but the distraction spoiled the effect that the writer had intended. To avoid the problem he might have said:

    I will be so busy decorating for you that I won't have time to use the cottage anyway.

  2. This one comes from a solicitor's letter to a client:

    I filed the claim I was preparing yesterday.

    But this could mean:

    I filed the claim I was preparing / yesterday
    (Yesterday I filed the claim I was preparing)

    or

    I filed the claim / I was preparing yesterday
    (I filed the claim [today?] that I was preparing yesterday).

  3. Subtle clues in the pronunciation indicate whether a word is part of a compound noun:

    I could eat a hot-dog

    but

    Hot dogs pant.

    The hyphen represents an absence of pause but often doesn't appear in standard spelling.

  4. Although we frequently omit the formal that we should beware ambiguity:

    They said in London it had been an exciting night

    =

    They said / that in London it had been an exciting night

    or

    They said in London / that it had been an exciting night.

  5. More radical revision is sometimes necessary:

    Cameron began to discuss what to do with George Osborne.

    The kinder interpretation could be rewritten:

    Cameron began to discuss with George Osborne what he (or they) should do.

    And the other might be revised to:

    Cameron began to discuss where to put George Osborne.

  6. This example comes from a book by a language expert:

    Those using English often found it necessary to explain why they were doing so.

    Depending on where the unpunctuatable pause goes, this could mean:

    Those using English often / found it necessary to explain why they were doing so.

    or:

    Those using English / often found it necessary to explain why they were doing so.

In many languages diacritical marks indicate stress and it's a shortcoming of written English that we have no such convention (with a few exceptions, such as the poetic blessèd). Writers should be aware of the problem and redraft when necessary to avoid the risk of distraction, misunderstanding, or — especially in legal documents — hostile interpretation.

I am grateful to María Cristina Vignolo and to my in-house one-woman focus group for reading a draft of this and for their helpful suggestions.

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