Reducing ambiguity

If you’ve taken an introduction to linguistics, you’ll have heard of ambiguity.  When I say “a cow attacked a farmer with an axe”, there’s some potential for miscommunication about who’s wielding the axe.  The reason is that sentences aren’t just words on a string.  Instead, the words come in clumps, and these clumps can link up in different ways even if the word order stays the same.  It matters if “with an axe” attaches to “attacked” or “farmer”.  This is syntactic ambiguity, but you can also have ambiguity in the words themselves.  If I said “I bought a pen”, you would probably imagine that I’d bought something to write with, but my sentence might actually be about an enclosure for some pigs.  You never know.

In your academic writing, you probably won’t be communicating facts about pigs in pens or cows with axes, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to worry about ambiguity.  Here are a few examples that can cause real trouble in essays: Continue reading “Reducing ambiguity”