Avoiding ambiguity: a pattern

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The usage manuals are full of condemnations of forms and constructions on the grounds that they could lead to ambiguity, and many of the disputed usages in English that I post on here bring me e-mail (usually with awful examples) about how they should be banned because they could lead to ambiguity. Almost without exception, these protestations are without merit; the usages in question are innocuous, and the awful examples are deeply decontextualized — with no linguistic context, and usually with cues to the social and cultural context removed, so that readers or hearers have to understand things "entirely by the words" (which tends to convert potential ambiguity into effective ambiguity).

Eventually, I saw that there was a pattern here. The first piece of the pattern is that the accusations of pernicious ambiguity are directed at DISPUTED USAGES (usages that at least some people dispute). That's what this posting is about. I'm intending to post more, because I think there's a deeper reason for the pattern, but this is a beginning.

(Comments are closed on this posting because this is the first chapter of several, and I'd like to avoid comments piling up on material that I'm planning to get to.)

To begin, with an example: a number of style guides tell you not to use the subordinators since and while as "logical" subordinators ('because'; 'whereas, although'), as opposed to temporal subordinators ('from the time that'; 'during the time that'), because that could lead to ambiguity. And, indeed, if you're clever, and you don't put your sentences in larger linguistic, social, or cultural contexts, you can concoct examples that could go either way: Since you went to Norway, we have been happy.

I have eight things to say here. One, already alluded to: the POTENTIAL for ambiguity is not the same thing as EFFECTIVE ambiguity in context. Why usage critics so often fail to distinguish these is a topic for another posting.

Two, potential ambiguity is EVERYWHERE. There are lexical ambiguities, constructional ambiguities, multiple potential referents for anaphors, and more complex cases. Almost any sentence potentially has more than one interpretation. Given that, ambiguity should be seen as a feature of language, not a bug, and it's worth asking why language should have this feature.

I'll put that off for a later posting, and settle here for noting — point three — that usage critics generally view potential ambiguity as a bug, a defect, so that when I say that, in the face of the omnipresence of potential ambiguity, it's silly to fret over this instance of potential ambiguity or that one, people respond: but the omnipresence of potential ambiguity is the very reason why particular usages (which have the potential to give rise to ambiguity) should not be condoned. The whole point, they say, is to fight the rising tide of ambiguity. (Note the metaphor.)

Point four: the usage critics do not, in general, propose to cleanse the language of potential ambiguity. They don't even propose to cleanse the language of effective ambiguity. So they don't take the inventories of truly troublesome ambiguities that people have collected — usually for the purposes of amusement — and attempt to proscribe the lexical items, morphological forms, or syntactic constrctions that figure in the ambiguities. There are circumstances in which, even with context, you might not be sure which reading of Kim likes Terry better than Sandy or I'd forgotten how good beer tastes (see here) was intended, but no one proposes to outlaw one of the types of "comparative reduction" (the one associated with the subject interpretation for Sandy, the other with the direct object interpretation for it) or to outlaw one of the two relevant uses of how and the structures associated with them (predicative how, as in How does this beer taste?, vs. extent modifier how, as in How good does this beer taste?). Instead, the potential ambiguities in such cases are "just there", part of the background of the language, so that many effective ambiguities are just unfortunate accidents (which you have to guard against on a case-by-case basis).

That is — point five — the usage critics divide the lexical, morphological, and syntactic resources of the language into two camps, what we might think of as the Old Boys and the Newbies. Hardly ever does someone question the Old Boys ("I've got mine, Jack!"), but the Newbies have to "earn their rights" and defend themselves against allegations of their imperfections (having the potential for ambiguity, using unnecessary words, omitting necessary words, offending "logic", etc.). Through the Old Boy/Newbie terminology I allude to the assumption on the part of the critics that the Newbies are in fact innovations — though rarely are they genuinely recent. Sentence-adverbial hopefully had its explosive spread about fifty years ago, which is about two generations back, scarcely "recent" in terms of human lives, but most of the other usages criticized as "introducing ambiguity", like logical since and while, have been in educated use for centuries. In any case, the Newbies count as "disputed usages". (Most of them have an entry in MWDEU, though MWDEU often demonstrates that the usage is standard English, period.)

But if potential ambiguity is no big thing, why do so many disputed usages get disparaged because they "introduce ambiguity"? This is point six, a familiar theme from many of my previous postings on the advice literature: because usage critics are usually not content to disparage or proscribe certain usages (perhaps on the basis of their personal taste) but want to justify, or rationalize, their judgments. They want to appeal to some general principle. Hence the attractions of Avoid Potential Ambiguity (APA): given the omnipresence of potential ambiguity, you can usually work APA into your story. It's just so handy.

Point seven, a reiteration of point four: because APA is invoked specifically against disputed usages, other usages get no censure, even if they are sometimes troublesome: hot 'high in temperature', 'spicy', 'sexually arousing', etc.; "true passive" (The door was closed by the custodian at 3 o'clock) and "false passive", that is a past participle used as a predicate adjectives (When we arrived at 3 o'clock, the door was closed tight), conflated in The door was closed at 3 o'clock; and many many more.

Then point eight: the Old Boy/Newbie distinction rests on the idea of "originalism" (see here), which assumes that the "original" form-meaning pairing is necessarily the "correct", or at least the "more correct", one. Logical since and while won't fly because temporal since and while are the originals (the earlier forms); sentence-adverbial hopefully won't do because nominal-modifying hopefully is older; none has to have singular syntax (None of them is going) because (it is claimed) it's historically not one; decimate can't be used to mean 'destroy a large part of, devastate' because it originally meant 'destroy one-tenth of'; and so on.

Everything came from something else, true. Meanwhile, things are as they are now.

Here ends chapter one on ambiguity. Much more to come.

[To avert misunderstandings: I'm not, omigod, advocating (effective) ambiguity as a good thing in general, or saying that (effective) ambiguity is not sometimes genuinely troublesome (of course it is, and I have my own collection of texts gone awry). But I am arguing against the absurd position that potential ambiguity should always be avoided, and the only slightly less absurd position that certain (disputed) usages should be disparaged or proscribed because they have the potential to lead to ambiguity.]


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