Writers and public relations professionals alike are especially careful to communicate exactly what they mean. But what happens when the words one uses are misconstrued and consequently misinterpreted?
The English language abides by two major syntactic rules: constituency and hierarchy. Linguistic ambiguity results from a sentence that accidentally breaks either one or both of these rules.
Constituency refers to sets of words that must “cling together” to form the subject, noun, or adjective phrases within the sentence. Hierarchy refers to the idea that constituent phrases can be embedded within larger phrases to form an even larger contituents. (Think: Russian nesting dolls)
It is critical for writers of published content to understand this particular linguistic concept, because the pitfalls of ambiguity have the potential to reap rather unfortunate consequences.
Here is a low-stakes example:
“Hagrid greeted Harry Potter with a birthday cake.”
If the reader is not familiar with the Harry Potter series, they might interpret this sentence to say that Hagrid met Harry who was already holding a birthday cake. This is incorrect, however, because the sentence is intended to communicate that Hagrid brought Harry a cake when he greeted him.
In this example, Harry Potter is the constituent noun phrase. The reader would be left in misunderstanding if they were to assume that “Harry Potter with a birthday cake” was the complete noun phrase.
Does this make sense? I hope so, because there has been a longstanding record of news headlines guilty of ambiguity in the very worst way.
Though often humorous, copyeditors must be vigilant when reading copy that could potentially be misquoted or misunderstood by readers. Though the context often offers clarity to a possibly ambiguous sentence, the door remains open for clouded understanding and leaves something to be desired in the effort of clarity. As public relations professionals, awareness of the ambiguity trap is the first step to conquering wordy or unclear content for clients.
So, now that you’re in the know, you too can spot ambiguity in headlines, tweets, and other published content.