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?