Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

As I was making my way through my news feeds the other day, I came across a headline that struck me as a little curious. It wasn’t the story itself as much as it was the wording of the article’s title. It told the tale of a “former Vancouver man” who was involved in some situation. Most readers likely glossed right over it, but that wording got me thinking: is the person in question a former resident of Vancouver or a former man? Or both?

The way that you choose to word certain phrases can leave much to the imagination, as the wording can be interpreted in a number of different ways. You might recall when I highlighted cable-chewing sharks and cookie-eating misanthropes in earlier editions of Grammar 101.

In the case of the “former Vancouver man,” we could be talking about at least three different theoretical individuals:

  1. A man who had previously lived in Vancouver
  2. A current Vancouver resident who has undergone gender reassignment
  3. A transgender woman who no longer lives in Vancouver

Even though we may agree that the first candidate is the most likely, the other two candidates represent possible interpretations of who a “former Vancouver man” could be. This is because the adjective “former” can be applied to either “Vancouver” or to “man.” Or to both, for that matter.

I collect Italian cars and coins.

How do you interpret that sentence? It’s clear enough that the speaker collects Italian cars, but are the coins necessarily Italian too? We don’t know that for sure. He could be collecting coins in general, but Italian cars specifically. The issue with a “former Vancouver man” is related to issues of ambiguity that arise with lists. One part of the sentence can unintentionally affect the interpretation of other parts of the sentence.

For clarity, you may decide to rearrange the phrasing. Instead of saying that “a former Vancouver man is wanted for questioning by the police,” you could say that “a man, formerly of Vancouver, is wanted for questioning by the police.”

Precision of language is of paramount importance if you want to make sure you are understood correctly. Consider how your words could be misinterpreted and leave no room for ambiguity.