Saturday, 19 May 2012

Ambiguity


I failed to complete the crossword three times running.*

That was meant to be my last thought before going to sleep last night.  I eventually did go to sleep, about two hours down the road.

Once you start looking for them, they’re everywhere.  Here are a few, drawn at random, just to amuse you:

The duchess can't bear children

He saw her duck

The chicken is ready to eat

‘Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas’  (Groucho, of course).

And this great example from Thomas Pynchon: ‘We have forests full of game and hundreds of beaters who drive the animals toward the hunters such as myself who are waiting to shoot them.’

I’ve always written, but until I retired it had been mostly what I suppose I have to call ‘technical’ writing, which is to say that precision of meaning was the success criterion.  If the readers were given any opportunity to misconstrue, I’d failed.  So that kind of writing was all, and solely, about communication of facts, past or future.  I think I did it reasonably well, that avoidance of ambiguity.

Since then I’ve dabbled more in what I suppose I have to call ‘creative’ writing.  Here, ambiguity, in its broadest sense, is what you’re aiming for a lot of the time.  You want the reader to wonder just what you meant, and to react with surprised laughter.   Poetry, of course, has it as its stock in trade, but I don’t do poetry.

According to a book I’ve never read, by Sir William Empson, there are seven types.  I can think of three, which is why I’ll never be a scholar.  But it occurs to me that if that’s true then ambiguity is pretty ambiguous itself, isn’t it?  And where is the boundary with metaphor?

I think that must be the point at which I went to sleep.



* The answer of course is that’d completed it twice but not the third time, rather than that I’d failed three times. I wouldn’t have bothered to mention that, would I?




10 comments :

  1. I've never completed a crossword while I was running. I'm impressed that you did it twice.

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  2. How about: Be reasonable like me!
    This was once said, with some crabbiness, in our house.

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  3. Z, when you meet my brother you'll know not to be impressed by his running ability, even for a single day, let alone three. You'll have to make do with the crossword impressionist.

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  4. Erm, have you met Rog by any chance??

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  5. Z, I'm impressed, and have reworked the text to retrofit to your comment and make it even better.

    Eliz - nice to hear again! Can I put a comma between 'reasonable' and 'like'?

    Mig - it seems to be in the air, so can I just put it on record that I'm impressed by your impression. (And your cat and mouse of course.)

    Richard - You run a mile, I complete a crossword. Race? (Quick of course, not cryptic.)

    Macy - not in person, though we do bond spiritually (don't we Rog? Rog??) Why?

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  6. I thought a comma spoiled the ambiguity, but perhaps not.
    I made a poster out of it, and stuck it up in the kitchen; nasty, I know.

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  7. Coincidentally, I replied to a friend's text this morning with "(my name) made a lasting impression then." Before I read these comments, of course.

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  8. I'm trying to contemplate what I would run a mile for or from. Apart from the obvious. Talking of which (running) am I the only one getting confused by the Jubolympee? I can't work out whether it's Her Majesty who will kiss the final torch into the cauldron or whether Brian May.

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  9. I'm glad to say that there's no one I know who's as ugly as sin^2\alpha/2

    Please don't let this keep you awake.

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