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 .