Jul 122015
 

From the great Language Log:

Most of the ambiguity contained in normal language use is passed over without any awareness on the audience’s part of the potential for double meanings. If one of the two intended meanings in an ad happens to be too faint, the ad must do something to fortify it and nudge it over the threshold of awareness. For instance, an ad that ran some time ago for British Airways used the tagline “Showers expected upon arrival.” To make it clear to the reader that showers could also refer to the bathing facilities that were available in the airline’s lounge at Heathrow Airport, the advertisers resorted to a fairly crude visual technique: a photo of a showerhead accompanied the tagline.

Much more sophisticated is the use of ambiguity in the following:

Are you up in the air about your future? Maybe that’s where you belong.

The ad was placed by the U.S. Air Force, whose logo appeared in the usual lower right hand corner of the print ad. I’m guessing that a typical reader response looks something like this: The idiomatic reading of “up in the air” is far more accessible in the first sentence than the literal one, and is perhaps the only meaning that the reader registers. The second sentence prompts a reanalysis, with the anaphoric where pointing to a definite spatial location, but it’s still not really clear how this second sentence fits in coherently with the first, on either the literal or idiomatic reading—until the reader’s eye lands on the logo, and voilà—the literal reading is further primed, and the identity of the sponsor now allows the reader to fit all the pieces together.

Such manipulation of context, to render meeker meanings more assertive, is part-and-parcel of the adept use of ambiguity. …

Jul 122015
 

In my classes, as well as in my career as a “communications guy,” I stress the requirement that all written pieces be read by one or several people prior to submission or publication. My friend, the scholar Jonathan Mayhew, has a preference regarding *when* his bright eyes are called upon:

There are two schools of thought about this. Mine is that you should only share work that is done, in ‘penultimate’ form. Giving someone a “rough draft” verges on the insulting. Moreover, it puts the reader in an awkward position. Should I point out rather obvious lapses that the writer could easily catch herself? Or should I assume that he really needs help with some basic issues? I have to guess at what needs commentary and what doesn’t. I don’t want to waste my time with issues that the writer already knows how to fix, with the possibility of insulting him, but I don’t know which is which. Does the writer have problems with organization, or did she give me something before she bothered to organize it? You should only share with me a smooth draft.

Jul 122015
 
Cover of "Treat It Gentle," Sidney Bechet's beautifully written autobiography

Cover of “Treat It Gentle,” Sidney Bechet’s beautifully written autobiography

I’m not a great creative individual by any stretch, but I do respect my muse and do *not* screw with it.

My friend kat passed along this letter by musician Nick Cave, which he wrote to MTV in 1996, in which he explained that his muse was “not a horse.”

My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature. She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves — in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition. My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel — this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes. My muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!

Clarinetist Sidney Bechet called his marvelous memoir “Treat It Gentle.” The “it” wasn’t his instrument, or his or another person’s heart (oh, he was rough with those!); it was his muse, the mysterious source of his musical invention. That book scared the shit out of me. I know exactly what Cave means, above.

repost from basil.ca