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Verbal Illusions

During a recent gubernatorial campaign, a reporter asked a local to comment on one of the candidates. The reply: “I can’t say too much good about him.”

Someone reading that might conclude the statement was negative, but anyone listening knew it was just the opposite. From the way he said it, the man clearly meant, “This guy’s so terrific that I just can’t say enough good things about him.”

When you write, you don’t have vocal inflections, facial expressions, or hand gestures to help make your point. Besides words, all you have is punctuation, which reinforces your case if you’re proficient or can sabotage it if you’re not.

So writers, perhaps more than speakers, have to be sure they say what they mean, because unlike most speech, writing stays around awhile. Those who write must be ever vigilant to avoid unintentional ambiguity, which in its milder forms merely makes people laugh. But accidental double meanings can turn a compliment into an outrage, a triumph into a debacle—and on a really bad day, a mundane memo into a tragic misunderstanding.

Despite its potential for disaster, ambiguity can be entertaining and fascinating, especially if we’re not personally involved. Consider this headline from a newsletter I received in the mail: “Bay Cities Refuse to Again Recycle Christmas Trees.” Those who don’t know about the agency called Bay Cities Refuse would think there’s no Christmas-tree recycling in Bay Area cities. That’s the exact opposite of what Bay Cities Refuse intended.

Someone asks you if it’s true that a certain woman left a two-dollar tip after a two-hour lunch. You text back: “She’s not that kind.” You may want to reword that. You think you’re defending her, saying she’s not the sort of person who’d ever do such a thing. But your correspondent thinks you mean she’s not even that generous—she’d probably leave even less.

Here are some ambiguous words to approach with care:

Suspicious  Is a suspicious character suspicious of me, or am I suspicious of him?

Apparently  This is one wishy-washy word. It means “definitely”—except when it means “maybe.” You’re apparently disappointed might mean “I have no doubt you’re disappointed.” But it could just as easily express uncertainty: “I think you’re disappointed—am I wrong?”

All  It can mean “everything” or it can mean “the only thing.” I heard a film critic say that a certain actor was “all that’s wrong with this movie.” Did he mean it’s an excellent film, and the only thing wrong is the one performance? Or did he mean that the actor’s bad showing exemplified what a mess the whole project turned out to be?

Miserable  Maybe he’s a miserable wretch—a good man down on his luck and in a lot of pain. Or he could be a miserable swine—meaning someone who makes us miserable.

Determined  You find sentences like this in police logs: “The man was determined to be DUI.” Sure, it means that the police nabbed another drunk on Saturday night. But the first time I ran across it, I thought it meant that some guy really had his mind set on getting sloshed.

Let me close with a famous quotation attributed to American classical scholar Moses Hadas. Note how it relies on ambiguity for its wicked sting: “Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I’ll waste no time reading it.”

Tom Stern

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