Practice academic writing skills 2: Ambiguity

One of the most important elements of good writing is clarity. Unfortunately, English has a lot of potential for ambiguity, which makes it easy to write ambiguous sentences. Great for humor, of course, but not a lot of help when it comes to writing works of science! One example is the use of prepositions.

Compare:

  • I saw the man with a telescope.
  • I saw the man through a telescope.
  • Do you have any books on antique furniture?
  • Do you have any books about antique furniture?

In each case, both prepositions are correct, but the second choice is unambiguous.

A great source of trouble are invisible phrase structures, like defining clauses (introduced by which, that, who – or nothing!), extended prepositional phrases full of relatively unconnected information and long-distance dependencies using structures like if…then and either…or.

Compare:

  • They’re having a barbecue in the garden behind the house they are renting next Saturday at 8. (They’re only renting the house at eight o’clock?)
  • They’re having a barbecue next Saturday at 8 in the garden behind the house they are renting.

What went wrong in the first sentence? The reader expects information that belongs together to be close together.

Practice:

Here are some more similar phrases. Enjoy, determine what makes them ambiguous, and then suggest how to rephrase them.

1. Yoko Ono will talk about her husband John Lennon who was killed in an interview with Barbara Walters.
2. Two cars were reported stolen by the Griveton police yesterday.
3. The license fee for altered dogs with a certificate will be $3 and for pets owned by senior citizens who have not been altered the fee will be $1.50.
4. Tonight’s program discusses stress, exercise, nutrition and sex with Celtic forward Scott Wedman, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and Dick Cavett.
5. We will sell gasoline to anyone in a glass container.
6. For sale: Mixing bowl set designed to please a cook with round bottom for efficient beating.
7. “I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pyjamas I’ll never know.” Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers

Ambiguous phrases 1.-7. from Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, p. 94

(This is a post on the Moodle Scientific Writing Forum I’m developing for the PROGRESS group at Uni Potsdam. Feel free to use if you like, let me know if the explanations click or fizzle.)

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Anne

Teaching English for business communication skills, writing online for learners, translating, sailing whenever I can, from Washington, D.C.

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