The Compulsive Copyeditor

July 9, 2009

When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It.

Filed under: grammar — amba12 @ 11:52 pm
Tags: ,

That famous koan of Yogi Berra’s?  That’s how “grammatical ambiguity” makes me feel.

Grammatical ambiguity is my own private term (unless of course I saw it somewhere and unconsciously stole it) for when you know perfectly well what a sentence means, but the grammar shunts you off in two possible directions simultaneously.  One is absurd and quickly ruled out, but you have to do a microsecond’s extra work in reading the sentence, and it’s unsettling, like slipping on a cake of soap and losing your balance for an instant, or having your two ice skates go their separate ways.  (I told you grammar is physical to me.)

Here’s an example I just came across, unfortunately not the most flagrant or funniest one:

Researchers in England have shown that those cells let pollinating insects get a grip on unsteady flowers while they extract nectar and pollen.

When you first hit “they,” didn’t you think it was going to be something about the flowers, like “while they sway in the breeze”?  And then you had to revise your expectation and change direction, turning on a dime.  This may have happened so fast you weren’t aware of it, but it gives you that slight, subliminal feeling of instability, like walking on slippery ice.

This was how I suggested revising it:

Researchers in England have shown that those cells let pollinating insects get a grip on unsteady flowers while extracting nectar and pollen.

Not a perfect solution; I don’t like having two “-ing” words in such close proximity.  May work on it some more.  But anyway, I’ll add more examples of the genre to this post as I find them.

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2 Comments »

  1. If you told Berra he had ‘grammatical ambiguity’ he’d say, “Don’t blame me, I’m old!”

    Comment by Ron — July 20, 2009 @ 5:56 am | Reply

  2. […] editors are conscious, the way Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners can read subtle pulses.  Here I am talking about the same thing: Grammatical ambiguity is my own private term (unless of course I saw […]

    Pingback by A Vital Copyediting Concept: The IH « The Compulsive Copyeditor — April 18, 2010 @ 1:12 pm | Reply


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