No personal blog crapola.
Just one guy's quest to unlock the mysterious art of storytelling on screen.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Murderous Grammar

Murdered Minister's Wife Confesses to the Crime

... was the headline that caught my eye and had me clicking through to shortnews.com.

I really wanted to know how the deceased wife of a minister managed to confess to murdering herself. It sounded like some kind of delicious time-travel scenario, or perhaps a ghostly confession from the spirit world. I mean, are we talking about a cryptic suicide? Did she have multiple personalities and go through a sudden and awful Jekyll-Hide struggle while chopping carrots for the evening meal?

No.

The wife is safe and well. And headed for jail. You guessed it: she was the one doing the murdering and her minister husband was the one doing the expiring. But that's not what the title says.

The title is horribly ambiguous. Both readings are valid: that the victim was the minister or that the victim was his wife.

Now, ambiguity is a wonderful tool for writing comedies. Audiences love to be fooled by clever use of language (so long as you don't make them feel foolish). But apart from that, you should strive to remove all ambiguity from your writing.

If the author of the quoted news article had stopped to think about what he/she had written, perhaps we would have read this title instead:

Wife of Murdered Minister Confesses to the Crime

I'll leave it to you to determine which of the three basic attributes of good writing the original title violates. Those attributes are variously summed up as the ABCs of writing:

  • accurate
  • brief
  • clear
or the three Cs of writing:
  • correct
  • concise
  • clear

[end]

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