Careless word order is perhaps the commonest cause of ambiguity. Sentences need to be thoughtfully structured to ensure the intended relationship between words or phrases, and to avoid any unintended relationship. The rule of thumb is to place related words as near to each other as possible.
Hence the comically ambiguous advertisement X. A piano is being sold by a lady with carved legs is easily rectified by shifting the last phrase with carved legs to a position closer to the noun piano that it relates to: A piano with carved legs is being sold by a lady.
With truly ambiguous sentences, such an adjustment may resolve the ambiguity in one direction, but not in the other.
Take, for example, this sentence: ? The government ordered an inquiry into the unrest last year. Does last year relate to ordered or to unrest? If to ordered, you can shift last year to a position alongside it: The government last year ordered an inquiry into the unrest.
But if last year relates to unrest, you will have to add an extra word or phrase to remove the ambiguity: The government ordered an inquiry into the unrest that occurred last year (or simply, the unrest of last year).
Here now are several more example of ambiguity – real ambiguity, with a pair of rival meanings, or merely comic and theoretical ambiguity – based on poor word order.
You might try restructuring or rephrasing each sentence to produce the intended meaning or the two possible meanings.
At all events, examine all the examples closely with a view to learning the dangers and avoiding them in your own writing.
Mary Wiggins wants to play Lady Macbeth very badly. My supporters urged me to speak with great fervor. The officer testified that Dr Henley had cycled past the protesters hurling insults. The mayor shook hands awkwardly with the visitor, inconvenienced by an attack of arthritis. Please send us your ideas about planting seedlings on a postcard. A volley of gunshot was used to disperse the riot by the police. The militia was criticised for firing tear gas into the crowd yesterday without causing serious injury. Further north are the hills covered in heather that visitors find so attractive. You’ll never find a policeman just walking here in the park. Children, this fruit is not to be eaten without washing first.
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