Thursday, December 11, 2008

Amphiboly

An amphiboly (or amphibology) sounds like it should be some type of frog or other amphibian, but it is actually an ambiguity. (Which makes sense, since a frog is ambiguously terrestrial and aquatic.) In particular, it is a sentence which can be understood in more than one way.

The title of the book I am reading, Fools Crow, is a perfect example: Is it noun-verb (the fools are crowing) or verb-noun (he fools the Crow Indians)? In this case, it is the latter, but it took me a while to know. A friend pointed out that if you hear the title and can't see that there is no apostrophe, it could also be noun-noun (the crow belongs to the fool(s)).

More examples: I briefly stumped my kids recently when I said that I appreciated their presence. They weren't sure if I meant the fact that they were there, or the gifts that they had given me.

And from Wikipedia:
  • Teenagers shouldn't be allowed to drive. It's getting too dangerous on the streets. (Are the teenagers the threat or the threatened?)
  • I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I'll never know. (Groucho Marx)
  • At a used-car lot: Why go elsewhere to be cheated? Come here first!
    At our drugstore, we dispense with accuracy!
  • Eat our curry, you won't get better!
  • Professor to student, on receiving a fifty-page term paper: I shall waste no time reading it. (Often attributed to Disraeli)
  • No food is better than our food.
  • Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.

At least now I know a new way to describe what I do as an editor: I eliminate amphibolies.