Clarity in writing is essential. Authors, writers and even editors edit, edit, and edit again to make sure every word, phrase, line, and every paragraph is as clear as it can be. Still, every once in awhile something gets through that makes the reader wonder what exactly the real meaning was the author meant to convey. Take the headline above for example:
Dr. Ruth to talk about sex with newspaper reporters.
This was supposedly a real headline in a newspaper, though I’ve yet to confirm it, but for argument’s sake, let’s say it’s real. What do you think the reporter was trying to get across? That (i) Dr. Ruth really had sex with newspaper reporters and she was going to talk about her experiences, or (ii), she was going to talk to reporters about sex?
My guess is the latter, but unless I was at that symposium or news conference, I wouldn’t know.
Other double entendres are a bit more obvious, for example:
Mixcon Inc. Makes Offer to Bash Co. Stockholders
Then there are those that really need clarification (and perhaps a few extra eyes to spot).
The officer said Monday he’ll retire after twenty years of service.
In this sentence, the meanings are many. Did the author mean:
(i) The officer will tell everyone this coming Monday he’ll retire after twenty years of service;
(ii) The officer said this past Monday he’ll retire after twenty years of service;
(iii) This past Monday, the offer said after twenty years of service, he’ll retire; or
(iv) After twenty years of service, the officer said Monday he’ll retire.
These are prime examples of misplaced modifiers and are more difficult to catch than misplaced modifying adverbs or adjectives. This is when great beta readers and meticulous editors earn every ounce of praise, virtual chocolates and big bucks (and I don’t mean the animal sort).
So, what is the lesson to be learned here? In short, be clever only when clever is called for. Use puns, but only for ‘punny’ stories, and watch out for ambiguity and those double entendres when a noun could be a verb and vice versa. Otherwise, your clever phrase may one day end up on a writer’s blog somewhere as an example of what NOT to do when writing.