Ambiguity is vagueness, doubt, haziness or uncertainty of the meaning of what is said or written. Several reasons account for ambiguity in sentence construction. It is particularly important for broadcasters to avoid ambiguity because the listener/viewer has a limited span of attention and has no time to figure out the intended meaning of what is said. On the other hand, the written word can always be reverted to for closer analysis, if misunderstood.
Let us now attempt to explain the causes of ambiguity with examples and remedies.
- I take the medicine prescribed by my doctor regularly.
Ambiguity: What is done regularly: The doctor’s prescription or the taking of the medicine?
Symptom: Wrong relationship between words.
Remedy: In a sentence, words or groups of words that limit other words must stand as close as possible to those words so that the relationship becomes clear. It may be necessary to replace ambiguous pronouns with nouns and introduce prepositions to make this relationship clearer.
Therefore: I take regularly the medicine prescribed by my doctor.
Note that adverbs and adverbial phrases (functioning as modifiers) are mobile within a sentence. Therefore, we can also say:
- I regularly take the medicine prescribed by my doctor.
- Regularly, I take the medicine prescribed by my doctor.
However, it is not advisable to begin sentences with modifiers, as we shall see later.
- The pastor saw many corpses walking around the cemetery.
Ambiguity: Who was walking around the cemetery: The pastor or the corpses?
Remedy: The pastor, walking around the cemetery, saw many corpses.
3. There is a warehouse in the town with many abandoned vehicles.
Ambiguity: What is with many abandoned vehicles: The warehouse or the town?
Remedy: There is a warehouse with many abandoned vehicles in the town.
In the town, there is a warehouse with many abandoned vehicles. (But remember the rule on dangling modifiers, which will be treated in detail later)
I don’t think we should accept everything he says without thinking.
Ambiguity: Who acts/should not act without thinking?
Remedy: I don’t think we should, without thinking, accept everything he says.
- Because she had never driven a car before, she was afraid of it.
Ambiguity: She was afraid of what: The car or driving (it)?
Remedy: She was afraid of driving (it) because she had never driven a car before.
6. He noticed a large hole in the bed that was right in the centre.
Ambiguity: What was right in the centre: The bed or the hole?
Remedy: He noticed a large hole that was right in the centre of the bed.
7. A badly raised child may return later to torment you as a criminal.
Ambiguity: Who is the criminal: The badly raised child or the one who raised him badly?
Remedy: A badly raised child may return later as a criminal to torment you.
- Written in simple language, any student can enjoy this lesson.
Symptom: Use of Misrelated and Unrelated (Dangling) Participles that serve as modifiers.
Ambiguity: What is written in simple language: The fact that any student can enjoy the lesson or the lesson itself?
Remedy: State clearly what you mean and begin your sentence with the main clause.
Therefore: Any student can enjoy this book (that is) written in simple language.
- Unless thoroughly cooked, you should not eat pork.
Ambiguity: What should be thoroughly cooked: The pork or you?
Remedy: You should not eat pork unless it is thoroughly cooked.
- While peeling onions, my eyes always shed tears.
Ambiguity: Who/what is peeling the onions: You or your eyes?
Remedy: My eyes always shed tears while I’m peeling onions.
Keep laughing until the next edition.
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