Tuesday 12 January 2010

Linear Ambiguity

This morning I saw a headline squashed into a side-column:


The problem was that I was reading it line by line (as I had to). So when I had finished line two but not started line three, the thing had a strangely metaphysical feel to it.

Years ago I used to proof read (appropriately, no two dictionaries can agree on whether proof read is one word, two words or hyphenated) TV listings: the little programme summaries towards the back of the newspaper. I learned so many wonderful things back then. I learned that outtake is one word, that EastEnders has a capital E in the middle and that people read sentences from the beginning to the end. The reason for that last one was that each episode of a soap opera would have two main plot strands, so the descriptions I proofed would look like this:

Ben ends up in bed with Tyra and Wayne loses his job

The problem with this sentence is that the reader is likely to read it from beginning to end. This means that half way through the sentence the reader has:

Ben ends up in bed with Tyra and Wayne

"Wow!" thinks the reader. "A threesome!" But then he finds the orphaned words:

loses his job

A verb and object cut loose from their mooring and left to drift incompletely on the seas of grammar. The reader is puzzled for a moment. He feels lost. He feels betrayed. He feels as Helen Keller would if you chucked her out of an airplane. Then, in a flash, he realises his mistake. He puts his finger back at the beginning of the sentence and starts again:

Ben ends up in bed with Tyra [pause] and Wayne loses his job.

So one of my main jobs was to put a comma before the word and. This was not because there was any grammatical necessity. The conjunction and between two main clauses is usually unpunctuated. It was merely a readerly necessity because readers move from the beginning of the sentence to the end interpreting all the time.

In this we are quite different from the Germans and Romans and anyone else with a very inflected language. In Latin you have to read the whole sentence and then make a guess as to its meaning. This is because the word order is so loose that a main verb or restrictive modifier can be skulking at the end of a sentence. What that patient waiting for the full stop does to the whole nature of the German mind I quiver to think and it is, anyway, beyond the mandate of this blog.

English is ambiguous and the reader impatient for meaning. Of course this allows for one our simplest forms of humour, the twist at the end of the sentence, as in "I don't go to church in the nude... much."

All of this is terribly acute if there's a line or page break to halt the reader, but I suppose that both are pretty perilous anyway. There was a glorious Mail article about how the

amputee model Heather
Mills married Beatles leg-
end Paul McCartney

And page breaks allowed my favourite joke in Hancock's Half Hour where a policeman on the witness stand is reading testimony from his notebook. He concludes:

I apprehended the suspect and took him into custard.

He then licks the tip of his finger, turns the page of his notebook and adds:


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