Sample R05 from Evan Esar, Humorous English; a guide to comic usage, jocular speech and writing, and witty grammar. New York: Horizon Press, 1961. Pp. 141-148. A part of the XML version of the Brown Corpus2,024 words 839 (41.5%) quotes 1 formulaR05

Used by permission of Evan Esar.0010-1850

Evan Esar, Humorous English; a guide to comic usage, jocular speech and writing, and witty grammar. New York: Horizon Press, 1961. Pp. 141-148.

Typographical Error: indefinity [1400]Arbitrary Hyphen: girl-friend [0230] No Hyphen: standby [0500]

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Ambiguity Nothing in English has been ridiculed as much as the ambiguous use of words , unless it be the ambiguous use of sentences . Ben Franklin said , `` Clearly spoken , Mr. Fogg . You explain English by Greek '' . Richard Brinsley Sheridan said , `` I think the interpreter is the hardest to be understood of the two '' . And a witty American journalist remarked over a century ago what is even more true today , `` Many a writer seems to think he is never profound except when he can't understand his own meaning '' .

There are many types of ambiguity and many of them have been described by rhetoricians under such names as amphibology , parisology , and other ologies . In common parlance they would be described as misses -- misinterpreters , misunderstanders , misdirectors and kindred misdeeds .

One species of ambiguity tries to baffle by interweaving repetition . `` Did you or did you not say what I said you said , because Jane said you never said what I said '' ? ?

Another woman , addressing Christmas cards , said to her husband : `` We sent them one last year but they didn't send us one , so they probably won't send us one this year because they'll think we won't send them one because they didn't last year , don't you think , or shall we '' ? ?

Such ambiguous exercises compound confusion by making it worse compounded , and they are sometimes expanded until the cream of the jest sours . Ambiguity of a non-repetitious kind describes the dilemma one girl found herself in . `` I'm terribly upset '' , she told a girl-friend . `` I wrote Bill in my last letter to forget that I had told him that I didn't mean to reconsider my decision not to change my mind -- and he seems to have misunderstood me '' . Evidently Bill was another of those men who simply don't understand women .

Another case involves a newspaper reporter who tripped up a politician . `` Mr. Jones , you may recall that we printed last week your denial of having retracted the contradiction of your original statement . Now would you care to have us say that you were misquoted in regard to it '' ? ?

Questions like this , framed in verbal fog , are perhaps the only kind that have ever stumped an experienced politician . They recall Byron's classic comment : `` I wish he would explain his explanation '' . Similarly , when a reporter once questioned Lincoln in cryptic fashion , Lincoln refused to make any further statement . `` I fear explanations explanatory of things explained '' , he said , leaving the biter bit -- and bitter .

The obscurity of politicians may not always be as innocent as it looks . `` Senator '' , said an interviewer , `` your constituents can't understand from your speech last night just how you stand on the question '' . `` Good '' ! ! Replied the Senator . `` It took me five hours to write it that way '' .

The misplaced modifier is another species more honored in the observance of obscurity than in the breach . This creates an amusing effect because its position in a sentence seems to make it apply to the wrong word . A verse familiar to all grammarians is the quatrain : `` I saw a man once beat his wife When on a drunken spree . Now can you tell me who was drunk -- The man , his wife , or me '' ? ?

The `` wooden-leg '' gag of vaudeville , another standby of this sort , had endless variations .

`` There's a man outside with a wooden leg named Smith '' . `` What's the name of his other leg '' ? ?

Another stock vaudeville gag ran : `` Mother is home sick in bed with the doctor '' .

When radio came in , it continued the misplaced modifier in its routines as a standard device .

`` Do you see that pretty girl standing next to the car with slacks on '' ? ? `` I see the girl but I don't see the car with slacks on '' .

In recent years gagwriters have discovered this brand of blunder and thus the misplaced modifier has acquired a new habitat in the gagline . In one cartoon a family is shown outside a theater with the head of the family addressing the doorman : `` Excuse me , but when we came out we found that we had left my daughter's handbag and my wife's behind '' .

Journalism supplies us with an endless run of such slips . Not long ago a newspaper advised those taking part in a contest that `` snapshots must be of a person not larger than Af inches '' .

Classified ads are also chockfull of misrelated constructions . Readers of the Reader's Digest are familiar with such items which often appear in its lists of verbal slips , like the ad in a California paper that advertised `` House for rent . View takes in five counties , two bedrooms '' .

Since brevity is the soul of ambiguity as well as wit , newspaper headlines continually provide us with amusing samples . `` Officials Meet on rubbish . Many Shapes in bathtubs . Son and Daughter of Local Couple Married '' .

Apart from misplaced modifiers and headlinese , journalism contributes a wide variety of comic ambiguities in both editorial and advertising matter .

A weekly newspaper reported a local romance : `` and the couple were married last Saturday , thus ending a friendship which began in their schooldays '' .

An item in the letters column of a newspaper renewed a subscription , adding : `` I personally enjoy your newspaper as much as my husband '' .

Then there was the caterer's ad which read : `` are you getting married or having an affair ? ? We have complete facilities to accommodate 200 people '' .

The newspaper too is the favorite habitat of the anatomical . This slip is so-called because its semi-ambiguous English always seems to refer to a person's anatomy but never quite means what it seems to say . Samples : He walked in upon her invitation . She kissed him passionately upon his reappearance . He kissed her back .

Not without good reason has the anatomical been called jocular journalese . In news items a man is less often shot in the body or head than in the suburbs . `` While Henry Morgan was escorting Miss Vera Green from the church social last Saturday night , a savage dog attacked them and bit Mr. Morgan on the public square '' .

Such items recall the California journalist who reported an accident involving a movie star : `` The area in which Miss N -- was injured is spectacularly scenic '' .

The double meaning in the anatomical made it a familiar vaudeville device , as in the gags of Weber and Fields . When a witness at court was asked if he had been kicked in the ensuing rumpus , he replied , `` No , it was in the stomach '' . Strangely enough , this always brought the house down .

Apart from journalese and vaudeville gags , the anatomical is also found in jocular literature . A conscientious girl became the secretary of a doctor . Her first day at work she was puzzled by an entry in the doctor's notes on an emergency case . It read : `` Shot in the lumbar region '' . After a moment of thought , her mind cleared and , in the interest of clarity , she typed into the record : `` Shot in the woods '' .

There are many grammatical misconstructions other than dangling modifiers and anatomicals which permit two different interpretations . At the home of a gourmet the new maid was instructed in the fine points of serving . `` I want the fish served whole , with head and tail '' , the epicure explained , `` and serve it with lemon in mouth '' . The maid demurred . `` That's silly -- lemon in mouth '' , she said . But since the gourmet insisted that it is done that way at the most fashionable dinners , the girl reluctantly agreed . So she brought the fish in whole , and she carried a lemon in her mouth .

Another specimen of such double-entendre is illustrated by a woman in a department store . She said to the saleslady , `` I want a dress to put on around the house '' . The puzzled saleslady inquired , `` How large is your house , Madam '' ? ?

This saleslady was a failure in the dress department and was transferred to the shoe department . When a customer asked for alligator shoes , she said , `` What size is your alligator '' ? ?

The comic indefinite comprises an extensive class of comedy . One species is restricted to statements which are neither explicit nor precise regarding a particular person , place , time or thing . A woman met a famous author at a literary tea . `` Oh , I'm so delighted to meet you '' , she gushed . `` It was only the other day that I saw something of yours , about something or other , in some magazine '' .

This baffling lack of distinct details recalls the secretary whose employer was leaving the office and told her what to answer if anyone called in his absence . `` I may be back '' , he explained , `` and then again , I may not '' . The girl nodded understandingly . `` Yes , sir '' , she said , `` is that definite '' ? ?

An old-fashioned mother said to her modern daughter , `` You must have gotten in quite late last night , dear . Where were you '' ? ? The daughter replied , `` Oh , I had dinner with -- well , you don't know him but he's awfully nice -- and we went to a couple of places -- I don't suppose you've heard of them -- and we finished up at a cute little night club -- I forget the name of it . Why , it's all right , isn't it , Mother '' ? ? Her woolly-minded parent agreed . `` Of course , dear '' , she said . `` It's only that I like to know where you go '' .

No less ambiguous was the indefinity of a certain clergyman's sermon . `` Dearly beloved '' , he preached , `` unless you repent of your sins in a measure , and become converted to a degree , you will , I regret to say , be damned to a more or less extent '' . This clergyman should have referred to Shakespeare's dictum : `` So-so is a good , very good , very excellent maxim . And yet it is not . It is but so-so '' .

Indefinite reference also carries double-meaning where an allusion to one person or thing seems to refer to another . A news item described the launching of a ship : `` Completing the ceremony , the beautiful movie star smashed a bottle of champagne over her stern as she slid gracefully down the ways into the sea '' .

This is not unlike the order received by the sergeant of an army motor pool : `` Four trucks to Fort Mason gym , 7:30 tonight , for hauling girls to dance . The bodies must be cleaned and seats wiped off '' .

A politician was approached by a man seeking the office of a minor public official who had just died . `` What are my chances for taking Joe's place '' ? ? He asked . `` If you can fix it up with the undertaker '' , returned the politician , `` it's all right with me '' .

The manager of a movie theater received a telephone call from a woman who was equally indefinite . `` What have you got on today '' ? ? She inquired . `` A blue suit '' , he answered . `` Who's in it '' ? ? She continued . `` I am '' , he said . There was a short pause for reflection . `` Oh '' , said the woman , `` I've seen that picture already '' .

Another brand of indefinite reference arises out of the use of the double verb . When a question contains two verbs , the response does not make clear which of them is being answered .

The moonlit night was made for romance , and he had been looking at her soulfully for some time . Finally he asked , `` Do you object to petting '' ? ? `` That's one thing I've never done '' , she said promptly . He thought a moment , then inquired , `` You mean petted '' ? ? `` No '' , she smiled , `` objected '' .

Replies to requests for character reference are notorious for their evasive double-entendre . It would be hard to find anything more equivocal than : `` I cannot recommend him too highly '' .

Another less ambiguous case read as follows : `` The bearer of this letter has served me for two years to his complete satisfaction . If you are thinking of giving him a berth , be sure to make it a wide one '' .

In the comedy of indefinite reference , it-wit occupies a prominent place because of its frequent occurrence . Ambiguity arises when the pronoun it carries a twofold reference .

Two friends were talking . One said , `` When I get a cold I buy a bottle of whiskey for it , and within a few hours it's gone '' . The speaker referred to the whiskey but his friend thought he meant the cold .

It-wit is a misnomer because it covers slips as well as wit . An excited woman was making an emergency call over the phone : `` Doctor , please come over right away . My husband is in great pain .