After reading the title of this post, you probably think that I will be telling you about an answer that is mixed up. But I could also be writing about a group of people—“the confused”—who give an answer.
Be Alert to Parts of Speech
When writers fail to notice that a word can be read variously as a noun, an adjective, or a verb, ambiguity can result. In my title, confused can be read as a noun or as an adjective, and answer can be read as a noun or as a verb.
Context can sometimes help the reader determine which part of speech is intended. Consider the following two sentences:
When the teacher asks if anyone is having trouble with the assignment, the confused answer.
When the teacher asks a question, the confused answer comes back.
In each, the context clarifies the part of speech and makes the meaning of “the confused answer” clear. But as Claire Kehrwald Cook notes, “[Y]ou can speed readers along by revising” such “stumbling blocks” (49–50).
So the sentences would be clearer if rewritten:
When the teacher asks if anyone is having trouble with the assignment, the confused students answer.
When the teacher asks a question, she receives a confusing answer.
A similar problem occurs when a verb is misread as a noun that is paired with another noun—for example:
She creates several sculptures and photographs the ones she likes best.
Photographs is a verb in this sentence, but because it is paired with the noun sculptures, your reader might at first misread photographs as a noun. For clarity, you might revise as follows:
She creates several sculptures and takes photographs of the ones she likes best.
That: Modifier or Object?
Cook warns writers to watch in particular when a word that can be a noun or a verb is followed by a that clause (50):
The mayor receives many phone calls and requests that you make your complaint in writing.
So that your reader does not read that you make as the modifier of a noun (requests) rather than as the object of a verb (requests), you might substitute a synonym for the ambiguous word:
The mayor receives many phone calls and asks that you make your complaint in writing.
In the next example, the that clause can be read as both a modifier and an object:
The party hosts told the catering company that they had chosen at the last minute to serve fish instead of chicken.
Did the party hosts choose a catering company at the last minute, or did they inform the catering company of their last-minute choice to serve fish instead of chicken? In other words, does that they had chosen modify catering company or is it the object of the verb told?
If you intend the that clause to be a modifier, you might revise as follows:
The party hosts told the catering company that they had hired at the last minute to serve fish instead of chicken.
If you intend the that clause to be a noun, you might use this phrasing:
The party hosts told the catering company of their last-minute decision to serve fish instead of chicken.
So, remember, when writers edit their prose, the quick fix problems with parts of speech, because the quick fix helps your readers.
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Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.
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