Grammar Shark

As we discussed in the little story about the girl who likes cookies more than most people, it is of paramount importance to be as clear with your writing as possible. When you leave your words open to interpretation, readers might get the wrong idea and misconstrue what you’re trying to say. And this applies to the grammar of sharks and underwater cables too.

Making my virtual way around the Internet a short while ago, I encountered the following sentence (and I’m paraphrasing):

Sharks like chewing on undersea Internet cables, so Google wraps them in Kevlar.

The actual content of this sentence is less important than recognizing the potential ambiguity it might present. Because of the way the sentence is structured, it could be interpreted in one of two different ways.

The first interpretation (and the one that should be correct) is that Google is wrapping the undersea Internet cables in Kevlar to protect the cables against the damage the sharks may inflict. The Kevlar-wrapped cables are better able to withstand the abuse of a chewing shark.

The second interpretation (and the one that is far more comical) is that Google is wrapping the sharks in Kevlar and not the undersea Internet cables. Go ahead and read the sentence again. You’ll see what I mean.

The pertinent grammar issue here is the relatively ambiguity surrounding the pronoun “they.” Since “they” is so far removed from both the sharks and the Internet cables, it’s not perfectly clear what “they” really means. You can suitably address this issue by re-wording or re-organizing the sentence.

Google wraps its undersea Internet cables in Kevlar to protect against sharks.

The “shark” problem might seem ridiculous, but consider these other sentences with unclear pronouns.

  • John from Hog Shack drinks coffee at Blenz. I go there all the time.
  • Sharon shared a croissant with Sandra. She loves pastries.
  • Carl showed his collection of cars to Tim and Al. They are quite old.

Now while what people have to say about shark fin soup is a different issue altogether, I can say with confidence that everyone should pay closer attention to their usage of pronouns. And your soup bowl probably won’t be wrapped in Kevlar.