Monday, February 25, 2008

One of these days

Occasionally I'm struck by an ambiguity that's so tasty, it can only be described as geschmak. A classic example is the title of a piece of spam e-mail that I once received: "Attract men with bigger breasts."

Another one comes from Neil Young's song One of These Days, in which the singer describes a letter he's going to write. The chorus goes:

One of these days,
I'm gonna sit down and write a long letter
To all the good friends I've known
One of these days, one of these days, one of these days,
And it won't be long, it won't be long.

The conjunct "and it won't be long" creates an ambiguity that can serve as a cautionary example for drafters of legal language. The more obvious interpretation is to understand it as pleonastic*, and the conjunct as a whole being shorthand for "and it won't be long before I do what I just described." But it can also be a pronoun which refers back to the letter, in which case the conjunct is saying that the letter won't be long.

The words are disambiguated, of course, by the fact that that the letter is earlier characterized as "a long letter." To avoid contradiction, the conjunct would have to be interpreted as referring to the length of time before the singer writes the letter. It's interesting that the presence of the contradiction doesn't make the sentence unambiguous to begin with, but rather makes it ambiguous between a sensible and a contradictory reading. Reminds me of Bertrand Russell's famous touchy yacht owner example.

The lesson for drafters: look out for ambiguities at a distance! Pronouns inside coordinated structures (those with and, or, and similar words) are dangerous, because pronouns are typically flexible enough that they can pick among antecedents, and coordination is flexible enough to pick among different-sized coordinated phrases. It and there, which can be either pronominal or pleonastic, add yet more flexibility. And when you're drafting, you want rigid rather than flexible words.

* The word "pleonastic" should not be spoonerized.

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