As writers, we usually strive for clarity. The success of our work often relies on our ability to make our meanings immediately apparent to our readers, which requires that we avoid amphibology. It can certainly be a challenging task, but it is not the task we have given you this week. In this week’s prompt, we are going to have some fun with the ambiguous side of writing.
The writing prompt yet has been written that shall stump you!
Let’s say someone is telling you about their camping trip. They casually inform you that after some difficulty finding firewood, they made a fire with their friend. What is the first thought that comes to your mind upon hearing that?
There are two ways that this person’s story could by interpreted. Perhaps they and their friend worked together to build the fire. Alternatively, there is a chance that this person found a creative alternative to using firewood. Grammatically, both interpretations are valid, making this person’s story an amphibology—or amphiboly depending on whom you ask. So what is an amphibology?
We’ll tell you all about it, but first…
Create, describe, portray, or otherwise demonstrate a situation in which confusion resulting from the use of amphibology causes mayhem!
Any medium or style is welcome! However, for our prose writers, setting a goal between 500 and 1500 words would probably be about right.
According to grammar and composition expert Richard Nordquist, an amphiboly is “a fallacy that results from a faulty sentence structure.” More specifically, something can be described as amphibolous when its wording, syntax, or grammatical structure leaves its meaning ambiguous. In the example above, it is unclear what role the friend played in making the fire. Was the friend fuel? We just don’t know!
Now, you might be saying, “Okay, but we can make a reasonable guess what the person was trying to tell us!” That is true in this case. Or we hope it is, anyway. From the context we are given and from what we know about people, we can safely assume that the friend assisted in constructing a fire, rather than becoming a part of that fire. Not all instances of amphibology are so easy to interpret, however.
Take for instance the reply of author Benjamin Disraeli upon receiving a book from another writer:
“Thank you so much for the book. I shall lose no time in reading it.”
Disraeli could perhaps be expressing his eagerness to read the book. On the other hand, he might have been thinking, “Blerg! Dude, I’m not wasting my time reading this.” Because of his ambiguous language, it is unclear whether he wanted to read the book or not, and the amphibolous sentence leaves us to question his meaning. He could easily be saying two very different things.
Amphibology is the result of a grammatical or syntactical slip-up. That is, something about a sentence’s structure went awry, which caused its meaning to become unclear. When this happens, commas are typically the culprit. In the sentence, “Let’s eat grandma,” commas make all the difference. Are we inviting grandma to eat, which would look like this:
“Let’s eat, grandma!”
Or is grandma the main course?
“Let’s eat grandma!”
Amphibology can also occur because of the wording of a sentence. For example, if you were to use the phrase “the blue book and pen,” it be be unclear to your readers whether “blue” was meant to describe both the book and the pen or just the book. A few months ago, a colleague of mine brought me a similar sentence, which read, “She sat down with the pancakes on the ceiling.” It took some time for me to puzzle through that one.
Before we give an official definition of this week’s Weird Word, we must acknowledge another point of ambiguity. Some users consider the words “amphiboly” and “amphibology” interchangeable. Others give different but similar definitions of these two words. Since we have no opinion on this, we will define both words and let you decide whether one can be used in place of the other or not.
“an ambiguous phrase or sentence; ambiguity”
(Credit: Funk & Wagnalls)
“am ambiguous construction of language; a group of words admitting of two meanings”
(Credit: Funk & Wagnalls)
Amphibology and amphibiology are not the tame thing. Amphibiology is the study of frogs and other amphibians. One little letter can make all the difference!
Amphibology is very similar to another logical fallacy known as “equivocation.” Where amphibology is the result of ambiguous grammar, which causes a sentence to take on multiple meanings, equivocation is the result of ambiguous words. One of the very best examples of equivocation is Abbot and Costello’s famous “Who’s On First” sketch.
In this sketch, “Who” is both a name and an interrogative word, so the sentence “Who is on first./?” has two meanings. Importantly, this is not a result of syntax or punctuation. We cannot change the order of the words or do much about the punctuation to remove the ambiguity.
Looking for some inspiration to kickstart your creativity for this prompt? Try checking out some music by the artist Redacted! Our thanks goes out to Redacted for his suggestion that “amphibology” be our Weird Word this week.
“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas,
how he got in my pajamas I don’t know.”
– Groucho Marx
(Roggen Wulf, 2014)