Landscape photography by Eryl Shields

Questions of Grammar: Ambiguity

I love ambiguity, it’s a very useful tool for creative writers; when used well it opens the portal to myriad fascinating possibilities of meaning, and gives the reader the opportunity to add her/his own meaning, so the work becomes a collaboration between writer and reader. Look, for example, at this line from ‘A Time Zone’ by Kenneth Koch:

‘Frank is smoking and looking his best lines come in transit/’

By leaving it unpunctuated we, the readers, are free to do what we like with it: is Frank looking his best; just looking around; or looking for a line, of which his best come while he’s moving? If so, what is his current state: ‘in transit’, thus making one of his best lines a possibility, or static, therefore looking in vain? And that’s even before we examine ‘smoking’ which is also ambiguous: is Frank smoking hot because he’s in transit and looking, and one of his best lines is emerging; smoking in the sense of being angry because look as he may no line is coming, or, merely smoking a cigarette? And what is a ‘line’ here anyway? I’ll leave you to ponder that one.

When used not so well ambiguity just creates confusion, and when you’re trying to say something specific that can be infuriating for both writer and reader. You need to know when you’re using it, and accept that it can lead readers to conclusions you may not have considered. It’s no use wailing ‘but that’s not what I meant!’ Here’s an example I saw on Twitter yesterday*:

‘We gather as one to pray for a broken world.’

I’d say that prayer has been answered.

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991 by Cornelia Parker born 1956
Cornelia Parker’s Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), from the Tate’s site.

I know, I know, but when you’ve spent the morning reading the Twitter profiles of Trump supporters all bets are off.



*It was, in fact, the inspiration for this whole post, and I’m sure a half decent comedian could have a field day with it.

8 thoughts on “Questions of Grammar: Ambiguity

  1. Oh, that was Capote was it?! I never wish (or pray) for anything these days, it seems to result in heartbreak either way.
    I, too, would LOVE to see the Parker piece in person too, it must be immersive.


      1. Years and years ago, back in the nineties when I was at college and used to go to exhibitions frequently. Easy to do when I lived near London. I’m well out of the loop now.
        Ms Parker was a new girl on the block back then… I swear I saw her eyeing up the little ballerina statue by Degas at the Tate. From memory the statue is made of wax, not bronze… ? Anyhow, the shed is something special…. the concept of it makes my heart beat a little faster. Ms Parker did the ear plugs made from dust from the Whispering Gallery at St Paul’s, and she also did something with waste vinyl from record albums. I love how her mind works.


      2. Me too, taking what’s broken, or discarded, or merely unnoticed and making it into something thought provokingly beautiful; it’s like the story of the ugly duckling made manifest. X


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