Ambiguous Antecedents

Mature man with blue shirt, closed mouthI recently ranted on language police who enforce arbitrary or misguided prescriptivist “rules,” that compound their misunderstanding of how languages evolve with a misreading of the history of English, applying Latin rules to a Germanic Bastard Tongue.

That said, while I don’t think there are unchanging truths about how English “should” be written or spoken, there are useful observations about what causes confusion and what makes for clear and easily understood prose.

A good example of this can be constructed simply by combining two nouns and a verb.  It is important to be very clear which noun is the object, and much fun can be had when this is left uncertain.  For example:

A man was sent to the store by his wife. She told him “Buy sausages, and if they have eggs, buy a dozen.”

He went to the store and said, “Do you have eggs?”  “Yes,” said the store owner. “Good,” said the man, “in that case give me a dozen sausages.”

While this misunderstanding is created for  comic effect, the ambiguity is both real and easily avoided.  I don’t have strong feelings about how you disambiguate whether eggs or sausages are the object of buy in the wife’s sentence, but failing to remove the ambiguity is poor writing as it asks too much of the reader.

My goal as a writer is to be crystal clear. To do so, I go out of my way to avoid ambiguity; after all I won’t be there when you read this, and so will have no opportunity to clarify my intent. And frankly, it is more than enough to ask of  reader that they grapple with new ideas;  poorly constructed sentences should not be making the work more difficult.

There is no doubt that turning a pretty phrase and avoiding confusion is more art than science; but art that conveys meaning is built on discipline arising out of experience.

About Jesse Liberty

Jesse Liberty has three decades of experience writing and delivering software projects and is the author of 2 dozen books and a couple dozen Pluralsight & LinkedIn Learning courses. He was a Senior Technical Evangelist for Microsoft, a Distinguished Software Engineer for AT&T, a VP for Information Services for Citibank and a Software Architect for PBS. He is a Xamarin Certified Mobile Developer and a Xamarin MVP and a Microsoft MVP.
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