'The chicken is ready to eat': How complex sentences alter meaning

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column dissecting English language

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Shashi Tharoor: Meet the man of many masks
Shashi Tharoor: Meet the man of many masks

Published: Thu 25 Apr 2024, 3:04 PM

“Miners refuse to work after death,” screamed the headline in a newspaper. So would I, one might well have thought, if I were dead! But the story sought to highlight a safety controversy at a mine: the intended meaning of the headline was that miners were refusing to work after a death there. But the ambiguous language of the headline invited ridicule rather than sympathy.

Ambiguous sentences occur far too often in newspaper headlines drafted carelessly by editors in a hurry to meet deadlines. “Man Eating Piranha Mistakenly Sold as a Pet Fish” could mean that a piranha that eats humans was mistakenly sold as a pet fish to someone. But it could also be read as saying that a man who was eating a piranha was mistakenly sold as a pet fish. The ambiguity arises from the fact that the phrase “man eating” can be interpreted as describing either the piranha’s behaviour or the man’s action. The insertion of a hyphen in “man-eating” could have made the meaning clearer. Similarly, “Kids make nutritious snacks” suggests that children are actively involved in preparing healthy snacks, which is a positive statement. Alternatively, this sentence could be understood to mean that children, if eaten by those so inclined, are themselves nutritious snacks!

Ambiguity refers to the lack of clear definition in a statement or phrase, leading to multiple credible interpretations. According to Merriam-Webster: “Ambiguous has, like many words in English, more than one possible meaning; a quality some might refer to as ambiguous itself. This word may mean ‘doubtful or uncertain especially from obscurity or indistinctness,’ ‘capable of being understood in two or more possible senses or ways,’ and ‘inexplicable’.” “Russian man found wife using ChatGPT” was a recent ambiguous newspaper headline. It is unclear whether the Russian came across his wife using ChatGPT or if he encountered his future wife by means of ChatGPT.

Verbal ambiguity is commonplace in conversation. While describing the events of a party the previous evening, if one were to say, “Frank hugged his wife, and so did George,” it’s not entirely clear whether George also hugged Frank’s wife or if George hugged his own wife. “Abdul saw the mountains flying over Zurich,” suggests that Abdul observed the mountains in motion, physically flying over the city of Zurich, though what the speaker intended to say was that Abdul saw the mountains while he was flying over Zurich. When someone tells you that “visiting friends can be annoying,” it could suggest that the act of visiting friends can be annoying, or that the friends who were visiting can be annoying. “I was told to stop drinking at midnight” is another one — was he told at midnight to stop drinking altogether, or was midnight merely the deadline for that day’s consumption?

Occasionally, individuals may not even realise they’re employing ambiguous language. It’s common to say “the chicken is ready to eat” — what you mean is that you’ve cooked the chicken and it may be consumed now, but literally, the sentence could also mean that a hungry chicken is waiting for its own dinner.

And there are examples where a sentence which, when expressed orally, may not be ambiguous at all, but can be ambiguous in writing: “He fed her cat food” is an example. Did he give food to her cat, or did he feed her food meant for cats? When spoken, the phrase “cat food” is clear; in writing, it is not. The most famous example of an ambiguous sentence is: “Can you call me a taxi, please?” The speaker could be asking someone to call a taxi for him, meaning he wants someone to contact a taxi service on his behalf or hail him one. But the person could easily reply, “OK, you’re a taxi”! After all, you asked me to call you “a taxi”, so I did!

Another classic is: “Groucho Marx said that he shot an elephant in his pyjamas.” What was the elephant doing in Groucho’s pyjamas? Or the boast that “brave men run in my family”? One could reply, “There are many brave men in my family too, but they prefer to drive, rather than run.“ Time for me to run, too!



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