10 Sentences with Muddled Meanings Made Clear

By Mark Nichol

One of my mottos is “Mean what you say, and say what you mean.” I try to write by the same standards, but it’s harder than it looks. What appears to be a reasonable sentence often isn’t — and “I understand what the writer meant to write” is a poor excuse for “I understand what the writer wrote.” Here are some examples of how to make an almost-right statement a right statement:

1. “The colonists were eager to surround themselves with the gardens of their homeland.”
This sentence implies that the colonists excavated the gardens in their homeland and deposited them in their new environs. Here’s the intended meaning: “The colonists were eager to surround themselves with gardens reminiscent of those in their homeland.”

2. “The amount of water pumped from the reservoir reached a seemingly impossible peak of half a million acre-feet.”
Peak is an awkward analogical term when referring to water volume. A more semantically neutral description is called for: “The amount of water pumped from the reservoir reached a seemingly impossible maximum output of half a million acre-feet.”

3. “We visited a Polish concentration camp.”
The writer states an impossibility: Poland never established concentration camps. What is true is that Nazi Germany established concentration camps in Poland. Superficially speaking, the difference is subtle, but the insensitivity of the inadvertent error is profound. To be accurate, write, “We visited a concentration camp in Poland.”

4. “The opposite pole with respect to availability is represented by Poland.”
While we’re in Poland, let’s note the distracting use of pole, which when capitalized refers to a person from Poland, in a sentence about that nation. In addition to omitting the distraction, let’s make the sentence active: “Poland represents the other extreme on the spectrum of availability.”

5. “The 275-square-mile tropical island off the southern end of the Malay Peninsula is smaller than New York City and every other country in southeast Asia.”
The phrase “New York City and every other country” implies that the Big Apple is located in southeast Asia. Here’s what the writer meant: “The 275-square-mile tropical island off the southern end of the Malay Peninsula, dwarfed by every other country in southeast Asia, is smaller than New York City.”

6. “Another report with thirty-two in-depth interviews has shown that all participants support the procedure.”
Unless both reports in question were based on thirty-two in-depth interviews, the sentence should be slightly revised to indicate otherwise: “Another report, with thirty-two in-depth interviews, has shown that all participants support the procedure.”

7. “One group of countries (Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Finland, France, Mexico, New Caledonia, and Puerto Rico) does not permit adoption by homosexual couples but does permit single people to adopt.”
The phrase “one group of countries” incorrectly implies that they act in concert to prohibit adoption by homosexual couples. Omit the troublesome phrase and start with the list: “Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Finland, France, Mexico, New Caledonia, and Puerto Rico do not permit adoption by homosexual couples but do permit single people to adopt.”

8. “The United States was right in interning the Japanese, and maybe it should happen again.”
This sentence, part of a discussion about dealing with terrorism practiced by Islamic extremists, isn’t meant to propose that people of Japanese ancestry in the United States should be interned in response to the terrorist attacks, but that’s what it says. The statement should be revised to convey that the reference to the Japanese is an analogy: “The United States was right in interning the Japanese, and maybe a similar strategy should be employed again.”

9. “Many Americans seem resigned to the notion that agriculture and big industries require a ton of water, and there’s not much we can do to change that.”
This sentence, out of context, has an almost invisible error. The point is not that altering the notion is seemingly insurmountable; it’s that Big Business’s supposedly insatiable need for water is part of the notion: “Many Americans seem resigned to the notion that agriculture and big industries require a ton of water — and that there’s not much we can do to change that.”

10. “If you haven’t been there, it is one of the greatest and most civilized places on Earth.”
This subtle error is of a type called a false conditional; when read literally, it implies that if, and only if, you haven’t visited a certain country, it can claim to be what the sentence conveys about it. (Isn’t that faintly insulting to you?) The intended meaning follows: “If you haven’t been there, you should go, because it is one of the greatest and most civilized places on Earth.”

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8 Responses to “10 Sentences with Muddled Meanings Made Clear”

  • b2j2

    The sentence refers to a peak (or maximum) pumping rate (such as per minute, per hour, per day, or per year) – it needs a time dimension. (An acre-foot is 43,560 cubic feet, roughly one-third of a million gallons.)

    Byron Johnson, PE

  • Precise Edit

    We have to correct false conditionals frequently, and when I hear them used in public, they make me chuckle (on the inside).

    Example: “If you want my e-mail address, it is . . . .” Well, that’s my e-mail address whether or not you want it. It doesn’t suddenly become my address when you first desire it.

    Perhaps false conditionals spring from overly eliptical sentences, such as “In case you want my e-mail address, I will tell you that it is . . . .” Or maybe they spring from sloppy thinking.

    The next time a waiter says, “If you’re hungry, we have a 16-ounce steak,” you can reply, “How much does it weigh if I’m not hungry?”

    Perhaps these are not so much false conditions as they irrelevant conditions.

    By the way: Is “false conditional” your term for this type of statement? I thought a false conditional statement occurs when the antecedent (the “if” statement) is true but the conclusion is false, as in “If an animal has four legs, it is a cow.”
    We represent this as: P–>Q; P=true but Q=false.

    I may have to look into this more, but I think this logical error is a form of non sequitur, perhaps the form called “denying the antecedent.” In any case, these statements demonstrate false causality. Maybe its an example of “modus ponens.” In any case, the condition is irrelevant to the stated conclusion.

  • Jennifer

    You point out in #3 “Superficially speaking, the difference is subtle, but the insensitivity of the inadvertent error is profound” but then make a similar error in #8! The United States did not ‘intern the Japanese’, it interned people of Japanese ancestry, including American citizens. I know that wasn’t the issue you were addressing in that particular example but by your standards for example #3, #8 should read, ““The United States was right in interning citizens (or simply ‘those’) of Japanese ancestry, and maybe a similar strategy should be employed again.”

  • Lauren I. Ruiz

    Some of the sentences in this article are great examples of how achieving good writing is often not a matter of pedantic knowledge but of pure logic; just by being a thinker, one is a better writer.

  • Iza Bartosiewicz

    Thank you for including no. 3 in this list. This may seem trivial to some people, but every time I hear this expression, my blood boils.

    To remove any further ambiguity from this sentence, it should probably read:

    “We visited a Nazi concentration camp in Poland.”

  • Mark Nichol

    b2j2:

    This is a case of missing context: In the original material, the time reference was made in the preceding sentence. I should have incorporated it into the sample sentence. Thanks for your note!

  • Mark Nichol

    Precise Edit:

    I haven’t seen any other name for this type of error, so I’m sticking with “false conditional.” It doesn’t follow the traditional formula of the erroneous logic statement P–>Q , where P=true but Q=false, but it’s an “if . . . then” statement (though then is only implied), and that’s good enough for me.

  • Mark Nichol

    Jennifer:

    Good point! Many of the sample sentences in my posts are taken from editing projects I’ve done, but I find others in published sources, and I’m not as careful about correcting all errors in the latter type when I use them to illustrate one error as I should be.

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