Nicole Stockdale, Dallas Morning News copy editor whose blog A Capital Idea I’m blogrolling for its archives even though it’s dead in the water, quotes a no-longer-findable column by James Kilpatrick of the Biloxi Sun-Herald on the vexéd subject of “like” vs. “such as”:
For example, “Contemporary writers like Norman Mailer and Annie Dillard have worked in Provincetown.” The “like” in this construction creates an IH – an Infinitesimal Hesitation. For the nanosecond, we wonder which of five “likes” we confront. Is it the verb? Is the Times saying that certain writers “are fond of” something? No! This “like” is a preposition! This “like” means “such as.”
My heart leaped up when I saw the term IH — Infinitesimal Hesitation. At last! A name for something I have often noted and tried to describe, something I believe subliminally troubles everyone, but of which only copy 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 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.
Thank you, James Kilpatrick, wherever you are, for giving this uncanny sensation a name, an thus lifting it further into the light of awareness. I shall forever after cite you.