Smoke and mirrors

Here’s a simple test. Guess what the following sentence means. Pause afterwards before continuing to read the post. Think about what it means for you and ask yourself, is it clear?

I did not see him steal your money.

What does that mean? Simple sentence, small words, straight forward, huh?

Now, look at this list:

  1. I did not see him steal your money.
  2. I did not see him steal your money.
  3. I did not see him steal your money.
  4. I did not see him steal your money.
  5. I did not see him steal your money.
  6. I did not see him steal your money.
  7. I did not see him steal your money.

Same sentence, but depending on the emphasis, the meaning changes. The sentence could potentially mean seven different things:

  1. Maybe someone else saw it, but I didn’t.
  2. I want to emphasise, very firmly, that I did not see it happen.
  3. I didn’t actually see it, but I know it to be true. Maybe I heard it, or sensed it some other way.
  4. I saw someone else steal your money, just not him.
  5. Maybe he was borrowing it only. He took it in full view and didn’t seem to be taking it secretly…
  6. I saw him take some money, but maybe it wasn’t your money, but someone elses.
  7. I definitely saw him steal something from you, but it might not have been your money, but something else.

You see, words written on pages have many meanings. The difficulty for the author is to transmit the one meaning they meant and not one of the stray meanings. Throw in sarcasm, irony, rudeness, prejudice, grammar, spelling, and all the rest of it, and all hell breaks loose.

Now, if I was a politician, say, then I’d learn the art of expressing myself suitably ambiguously, just like above, to throw up multiple interpretations. (The deliberate opposite of an author trying hard to be clear). I’d let the audience try and interpret the meaning for themselves, relying on my popularity to save the day. Hey presto! I can say one thing, but have multiple meanings embedded in them.

I was going to write about this in more detail, but Gavin’s blog got to it before me: http://www.gavinsblog.com/2007/07/17/that-45000/

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2 Comments

  1. September 28, 2007 at 1:27 am

    I’d throw in an 8th: the original form of the sentence with no words emphasized, which has its own feel. Something like a declarative answer to a direct question–the long way around to saying “No.”

  2. shazgood said,

    September 28, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    Well pointed out Liquid Egg. I didn’t consider that!


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