Tag Archives: ambiguity

Let’s be clear about something

As I often mention, I’m an editor. I’m also obviously someone who likes to play with words and who appreciates ambiguity; as I say in my About page, a word isn’t much good if it can only mean one thing at a time. Some people may consider these two facts incompatible: shouldn’t an editor’s job always be to enhance clarity?

Not to put too fine a point on it: Hell to the no! An editor’s job is certainly in many cases to enhance clarity. But by no means always. An editor is there to facilitate the best effect on the reader, which is a function of enhancing the author’s communication with the audience. But sometimes what the author wants to communicate is precisely ambiguity, open-endedness, an invitation for the reader to contribute some as well. To fill in the blanks.

Some authors value this more than others; the editor should pay attention to the author’s bent on this. (I, for instance, in writing fiction, usually prefer to let the readers fill in many visual details of the characters and contexts. If you’ve read some of my story-type word tasting notes, tell me what the following characters look like: Daryl, Jess, Margot, Ross. Why do you think so?) Inasmuch as the writing is at all an artistic expression, it has as part of its utterance “appreciate this aesthetically,” which means “look for the things that resonate with you in it,” which means that each reader will have his or her own individual experience and interpretation of it, similar but not identical to that of any other reader.

Ambiguity is even sometimes valuable in nonfiction. Well, not always so valuable for the reader per se, but quite often valuable for the author (or uttering body – much nonfiction is produced in the name of organizations or corporations), who doesn’t wish to be pinned down on this or that! And as the editor, you do have to keep that in mind. An editor has to be mentally flexible. (See Are you editor material? for more on what an editor should be.)

I mention this just because my attention has been drawn to an instance where an editor – without consulting the author, which is the worst part – made clarifying rewrites to a short story based on the editor’s own interpretations. This is an excellent example of what an editor should not just go ahead and do, and of why many writers grumble about copyeditors. The author is Mima Simić, and the story is “My Girlfriend,” published in Dalkey’s Best European Fiction for 2011. Read about it in The Facts Behind One Story in Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction for 2011.

“Banks Bet Greece Defaults on Debt They Helped Hide”

In today’s New York Times, my eye was caught by the following headline:

Banks Bet Greece Defaults on Debt They Helped Hide

It caught my eye because I couldn’t figure out what they meant by it. There were multiple options, none of them certain. It wasn’t until I read the third and fourth paragraphs that I got the gist:

These contracts, known as credit-default swaps, effectively let banks and hedge funds wager on the financial equivalent of a four-alarm fire: a default by a company or, in the case of Greece, an entire country. If Greece reneges on its debts, traders who own these swaps stand to profit.

“It’s like buying fire insurance on your neighbor’s house — you create an incentive to burn down the house,” said Philip Gisdakis, head of credit strategy at UniCredit in Munich.

The short of it is that the banks helped to hide the debts, and now they’re betting Greece will default on them.

There are a few problems with the headline the way they have it:

  • First, “bet” is temporally ambiguous – I wasn’t sure if they were talking past or present.
  • Second, “defaults” could be a plural noun or a present-tense verb.
  • Third, the present tense is confusing for “defaults” here because it’s referring to the future – something we do in English, use present for the future (since we have no inflecting future tense, just an auxiliary-based one with “will”), but it might be better to be clearer by saying “will default”.
  • Add to this the increasingly common practice of using attributive nouns rather than adjectives, which allows “Greece defaults” to be read as “Greek defaults” or “defaults of/by/from Greece”, and the standard dropping of the relative “that”, and you have something really a bit unclear.

Now, of course, “Banks Bet that Greece Will Default on Debt They Helped Hide” is noticeably longer, which is a problem in newspaper headlines, especially since the NYT still has a print edition with actual column inches to fit within. Likewise “Banks Helped Greece Hide Debt, Now Bet It Will Default”. “Banks Set Greece Up to Fail” might seem harder to defend as a statement, but is probably a better headline all around. (The ambiguity of “set” is OK here because it happened in the past and is still happening in the present.)

But, then, is it really a bad headline? It did get me to read the article, just as the most egregious website I’ve ever seen – yvettesbridalformal.com — has gotten me (and my friends) showing it to everyone, making for excellent advertising.

Incidentally, the title on the web page of the news article (not the headline but the title you see at the top of your browser) is “Trades in Greek Debt Add to Country’s Financing Burden” – clearer but, yes, less catching.