Writing Tip 9: Ambiguous phraseology.

By Mike Johnson

Have a look at this sentence:

Mavis pulls a skinny knife from out of her clothing never designed for chopping vegetables.

Hmmm… Clothing designed to chop vegetables is something for the Versaces of this world to work on; I’m having enough problems with a simple sentence.

Or try this one:

Mary slaps Janet aside like a rabid dog.

Who is the rabid dog? Is Mary behaving like a rabid dog by slapping Janet aside, or is Janet slapped aside because she is behaving like a rabid dog?

In my writing tip number 4 (link) I wrote:

This was brought home to me recently when we gave our library room at home a makeover, pulling the books off the shelves and painting them.

Oh dear! So I had to add in brackets:  (the shelves! Sentences can be tricky, eh?).

Yes they can. Here’s another one, a little harder to spot:

Instead of setting off back down to the marae, she continues upward along the trail the Jeff would have taken, heading towards the ridge along which the back road runs, and which approaches the mansions from the south.

What approaches the mansions from the south? The back road or the ridge. Both, of course, but that doesn’t solve the problem of ambiguity. Does it really matter? Maybe not, maybe no one would really mistake my meaning, but every time I read it I’m going to notice it, until finally I’ll have to do something about it. The ambiguity makes it vague! And a vague sentence will never pull its weight. But it proves oddly resistant to revision.

Jeez Cyril, have I really spent the best part of a lifetime getting the right words in the right order?