I've always been fascinated by the power of language. It's a very strange phenomenon, when you stop to think about it. We open our mouths and make peculiar sounds which somehow convey thoughts and feelings from inside our brains into someone else's mind. How does that happen?
Of course, it doesn't always work.
'We're packing in the travels this year,' I said to my husband.
He looked at me in surprise, understanding this to mean that I wanted to see an end to our travelling. What I intended to say was that we were cramming in a lot of travelling again. Since embarking on my new Lucy Hall series, our usual annual travels to all around the UK and Europe have increased, taking us away more frequently and further afield as far as the Seychelles and New Orleans.
Once you start to consider the quirks of our language, instances come easily to mind. What, we might wonder, is a 'civil war'? In battle do the combatants politely ask permission before shooting one another? And wouldn't it be nice if people's appearances were judged in the the same way as chances, given that 'a fat chance' is the same as 'a slim chance'.
There are many instances of ambiguity in literature. Some are deliberate, as when Shakespeare's witches chant 'Fair is foul'. Others are clearly not deliberate. In Thackeray's Vanity Fair, a character reports that 'he and I were both shot in the same leg.'
One of my favourite illustrations of the ambiguity of language is the child who was asked in a test to 'Take 7 from 93 as many times as you can.' The child answered 'I get 86 every time.'
And the advertisement that claimed 'Nothing acts faster than Anadin'.
Ambiguity is not only created by words. The surprisingly popular book 'Eats shoots and leaves' gives us many examples of ambiguity created by punctuation.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
A woman, without her man, is nothing.
Thinking about ambiguity is entertaining, but it's also a reminder to us all to be careful how we express ourselves. Thoughtless words can not only be unintentionally hurtful or insulting, they can change the meaning of our intended message.