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Punctuation helps Avoid ambiguity in writing

Published: 26th May 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th May 2014 11:48 AM   |  A+A-

An important characteristic of good communicators is that they have clarity of thought and clarity of expression. They convey their thoughts effectively and there is no ambiguity in their messages. A sentence is said to be structurally ambiguous if it has more than one possible interpretation or it is understood in two different ways or senses. Look at this sentence: John killed a woman with a gun. The sentence can be interpreted in two ways:

i.  John killed a woman who had a gun.

ii.  John used a gun to kill a woman.

The sentence should be disambiguated so that the intended meaning is conveyed clearly. If John had used a gun to kill the woman, the sentence could be modified as John shot a woman and killed her/A woman was fatally shot by John. Some examples:

1.  Peter enjoys painting his models nude.

2.  Ashok kissed the girl in the bathroom.

3.  Sangeetha gave her dog food.

4.  We are going to recruit teachers of English and Maths. 

The first sentence Peter enjoys painting his models nude has these two possible interpretations:

i.  Peter is nude when his paints his models.

ii. The models are nude.

The second sentence Ashok kissed the girl in the bathroom can be

interpreted as:

i.  Where did the action of kissing the girl take place? The answer is ‘bathroom’.

ii.  Which did girl did Ashok kiss?  The answer is ‘the girl who was in the bathroom’ but the action of kissing may not have taken place in the bathroom.

The third sentence Sangeetha gave her dog food gets interpreted as:

i.  Sangeetha gave someone food that is meant for dog.

ii.  Sangeetha gave her dog some food.

The fourth sentence We are going to recruit teachers of English and Maths has these interpretations:

i.  We are going to recruit different subject teachers (exclusively for English and exclusively for Maths)

ii.  We are going to recruit teachers who can teach both Maths and English.

Here are some newspaper headlines which are ambiguous:

1.  Prostitutes appeal to Pope (Does the Pope find the prostitutes appealing?)

2.  Kids make nutritious snacks (Are kids eaten as snacks?)

3.  Stolen painting found by tree  (Did a tree find the stolen painting?)

4.  Lung cancer in women mushrooms (Are there women mushrooms?)

5.  Two Soviet ships collide, one dies (Did one of the ships die?)

6.  Killer sentenced to die for second time in ten years (Was the same killer sentenced to die for the second time?)

In the headlines above, journalists meant something but, due to ambiguity, there are amusing interpretations of the headlines. Here is an interesting story from the back cover of Lynne Truss’ book on punctuation Eat, Shoots and Leaves: A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons. “Why?” asks the confused waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. “Well, I’m a panda,” he says. “Look it up.” The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

If the sentence had been properly punctuated, there would not have been ambiguity. Here is the corrected version: Panda, large black-and-white bear-like mammal, eats shoots and leaves.

— rayanal@yahoo.co.uk



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