Problem Sentences

Think about a paintbrush. It’s a tool, like a screwdriver – a lifeless object that gets its power from the person holding it. In gifted hands, a paintbrush can create amazing works of art. But without a human hand, the paintbrush just lies there, powerless and inert.

Artist's paintbrush

Language is a different kind of tool. Words can take on a life of their own hours, days, months – even years after they were spoken or written down.

Someone unearths an old speech or memo, and a promising career comes to an end. An overheard conversation wrecks a long friendship. A clumsy sentence destroys a promising business proposal. A typo on a resume aborts a job offer. Or…to give you an everyday example…someone orders a pizza with peppers and gets a pepperoni pizza instead. (That has happened to Charlie and me more than once.)

People tend to underestimate the power of language. When something goes wrong, we call it human error, carelessness, or incompetence. We mistakenly believe that language is completely logical and rational. If you memorize the parts of speech, learn how to diagram a sentence, and master the rules of syntax, you can exercise total control over language.

The truth is that language often finds a way to escape from our curbs, restraints, and intentions. At least that’s what postmodern language experts tell us, and I think they’re right.

Today I’m going to talk about several sentences that seem slippery to me. Somehow they’ve managed to escape the conventional language principles you and I were taught in school.

Let’s start with this pair of sentences. They seem innocent enough, but….

  1. If you want to take the lower bunk, I’ll sleep in the upper one.

2. If you’re looking for a place to spend the night, we have a spare bedroom.

A grammarian might say these are conditional sentences. The first half of the first sentence – your choice of a lower or upper bunk – determines what happens in the second half – the place where I’ll be sleeping tonight. Clear and simple, right?

But take a look at the second sentence. It’s similar to the first one (an adverbial clause starting with if, followed by an independent clause). But the first half of the sentence doesn’t determine the second half. That spare bedroom will be there even if you’re not looking for a place to spend the night.

Can we still call it a conditional sentence? And if put it into a different category, how can we justify that? There’s no syntactical difference between Sentence #2 and Sentence #1.

And what about this sentence?

If you need a ride home, I’ll be at the train station at 6:15.

Talk about slippery! The sentence could mean I’ll come to the station only if you need a ride. That would fit the definition of a conditional sentence.

But the sentence could also mean I’ll be at the station whether you need a ride or not. For example, maybe I’m planning to pick up another passenger at 6:15. In that case, it wouldn’t be a conditional sentence any more. But then what would we call it? And how can we justify placing it in a different grammatical category when none of the words and punctuation have changed?

 *  *  *  *  *

When my husband was writing one of his gardening columns last week, he came up with something like this:

We’ve had five straight days of heavy rain. But the water level in Lake Howard hasn’t risen, at least to a degree the average person would notice.

I thought the second sentence might confuse some readers. After some discussion, Charlie and I came up with this revision:

We’ve had five straight days of heavy rain. But the water level in Lake Howard hasn’t risen, at least not to a degree the average person would notice.

Now the meaning is perfectly clear. But did you notice what happened? We added the word not – yet the meaning of the sentence stayed the same. That can’t be, can it? Shouldn’t adding not completely change the meaning?

I do like apple pie.

I do not like apple pie.

OK, one more example – and this one is just for fun. I can’t resist including this delightful sentence pair I saw on a chalkboard one day:

Time flies like an eagle.

Fruit flies like a banana.

Ah, language!

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2 thoughts on “Problem Sentences

  1. Darrell Turner

    Those are good examples, Jean. A problem that I find frequently is sentences with unclear pronoun references. For example, after mentioning a group of three women, a sentence might refer to “her” or “she” without making it clear which of the women was meant.(This could also happen with a reference to a group of three men.) There is also the unclear “they” reference, as in sentences that begin with “They say.”

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    Excellent point, Darrell! I’ve made this point in my Instant Quiz feature – need to do it again. Thanks for the reminder! The “they say” issue is a big one that points to a lapse in critical thinking. Nice point – I hope to do a post about that problem as well.

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