The objective behind the Grammar 101 series on this blog is not to be pedantic or to demonstrate my superior grasp of the English language. (I mean, I consider myself to be a pretty good writer, as it’s what I do for a living, but I can make mistakes too.) The objective is more about helping you, the reader, reduce the number of grammatical errors that you make by explaining why certain words are used a particular way.
The thing with good grammar is that it can dramatically affect your reputation and how other people perceive you. This being said, you can write sentences that are perfect from a grammar standpoint, but they can still be utterly ambiguous, unclear, and poorly written. Let’s take a look at one such example today.
Amy likes cookies more than most people.
On the surface, this may seem like a perfectly simple sentence that is fairly easy to understand. Here’s a girl named Amy and she really likes her cookies. Easy, right? Upon further and more careful inspection, we learn that the actual meaning of the sentence is much more ambiguous than that.
Is the sentence stating that if we were to compile a list of all the things Amy likes, cookies would be ranked higher than most people? She likes cookies the most, rainbows a little less than that, and most people even less than that?
Or is the sentence indicating that if we were to create a list of all the people who like cookies, Amy would be among the top of the list? Amy has a cookie-liking factor of 90 points, whereas Jon has 75 points and Chelsea has 70 points?
In both instances, Amy likes cookies, but the exact understanding of the sentence is very different. Part of the confusion here simply has to do with context and the exact things being described. If we said that Amy likes cookies more than most muffins, then it’s clear enough that we are looking at a hypothetical list of things that Amy likes. The challenge with the original sentence is that Amy can like cookies, but she can also like most people…. but most people can also like cookies too.
Now, some people might say that while the specific understanding of the sentence can be a little unclear, the basic meaning remains the same. This may be acceptable in some casual conversation, but it is not at all acceptable in more of a professional context. This is especially true in academia, as well as in legal, governmental or scientific situations. Clarity and precision of language are positively indispensable and absolutely mandatory.
So, just as you should be careful about maintaining parallel structure or using the right verb tense, you should be even more careful about avoiding ambiguity in your writing. How would you clarify the sentence with Amy’s love of cookies?