Odd Words: Amphibology

My Wife and My Mother-in-Law - AmphibologyPage nine of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition starts with the am— words. And that means I know a lot of them, because I like words that have to do with getting along. But today’s word is a really specialized grammar word that is super useful: amphibology.

There weren’t any really interesting words today, other than “amour-propre” — a very pretentious way of saying “self-esteem.” So let’s get right to today’s word. You can jump down and look at the definition. Right now, I want to talk about why it is so useful.

Amphibology and Scott Turow

The biggest hurdle that writers face is seeing what they write from the standpoint of the reader. The classic example is, “The dog caught the ball as it flew through the air.” This is one grammar pedants love, “Oh, the poor dog! I wonder who threw it?” The truth is this response is incorrect, because one couldn’t say grammatically whether the dog or the ball flew through the air. So picking the dog is not correct. The original sentence is an example of amphibology.

I wrote about an instance of amphibology, How Good is Scott Turow? The sentence was from his novel, Innocent. The main character’s son is asked about his relative computer skills and he responds, “Compared to my father? Yes. I know a lot more than him.” Well, it isn’t exactly amphibology, because what the son says literally means, “I know a lot more about computers than I know about him.” Which happens to be true, and I wondered if Turow was such a great writer that he knew what he was doing.

Anyway, here’s the definition:

Am·phi·bol·o·gy  noun  \am-fə-‘bäl-ə-jē\

1. the use of ambiguous or quibbling phrases or statements.

Date: mid-14th century.

Origin: Latin: amphibolia, which means “ambiguity” or “double-meaning.”

Example: If the other side avoids its amphibology in the [nuclear] talks, it’ll be an experience showing it’s possible to negotiate with them on other issues —Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (quoted in In Defense of Marism)

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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