The ‘famous last words’ of the Lord Palmerston were reported these:
Die, my dear doctor? – that’s the last thing I shall do.
A pharmacist apparently used the following dubious boast as an advertising slogan:
We dispense with accuracy.
Behind the cleaver puns on the one hand and embarrassing blunders on the other lies verbal ambiquity – the opennes of a word or phrase to more than on interpretation.
Newspaper headlines provide a constant stream of amusing ambiguities: Cyprus fighting mushrooms. Healt Minister appeals to Nurses. Icelandic fish talk – that kind of thing. Here is recent sample from a leading newspaper:
Dog attacks prompt calls for registation scheme.
Such headline are ambiguous in theory. No informed reader would really misunderstand them. The following headline is genuinely ambiguous, however.
Envoy critical after shooting.
Does critical mean ‘ disapproving here – the envoy was critical of the lax security arrangements, perhaps – or does it have the moden sense of ‘critically ill’? (The article eventually revealed that the second of these meanings was the one intended.)
A further example from the press – from a news story rathen a headline:
The Oxford United coach was held up in a traffic jam and arrived with only three minutes to spare.
(It emerged later in the article that coah, referred not the man in charge of training team, but to the bus carrying the team to is match.) Here is a final selection of sentences whose ambiguity is due to the uncertaion meaning of a word or a phrase within them:
He played Hamlet as well as Macbeth.
The country had no capital at the time.
The doctor prescribed a certain remedy.
She was driven from her home by her husband.
There are two outstanding results.
I don’t discuss my wife’s affir with my friends.
The editor wasnt more humorous stories.
One gain. the context will often indicate the preferred meaning. Even then, however, it is usually worth making the meaning of a sentence clear and unambiguous in its own terms. The richness of the English vocabulary, coupled with the versality of English sentence structure, offers enormous scope for reworking or rephrasing a text unitl it is free of all unwanted ambiguity.