David French is a good writer. But the following is from his January 11th NRO column, Shame on Buzzfeed:
So here’s what responsible people say when confronted with claims like that: What’s your evidence? If the answer is “an anonymously written and anonymously sourced series of memos that no one has yet been able to substantiate,” then you either pass on the story or — if you have the time and resources — try to substantiate the claims. If you can’t, then you pass. It’s that simple. Any other action isn’t “transparency.” It’s not “reporting.” It’s malice.
The intended meaning is clear, but only after two or more readings. The trouble is the ambiguous phrase 'pass on.'
In one sense of 'pass on,' to pass on a story is to tell it to one or more people, to publish or broadcast it. French's intended meaning is the opposite: to refuse to tell the story by 'taking a pass' on one's option of so doing.
The careful writer is sensitive to ambiguity, both semantic, as in the above case, and syntactic. We philoso-pedants call the latter amphiboly.
"The foolish fear that God is dead." This sentence is amphibolous because its ambiguity does not have a semantic origin in the multiplicity of meaning of any constituent word, but derives from the ambiguous way the words are put together. On one reading, the construction is a sentence: 'The foolish/ fear that God is dead.' On the other reading, it is not a sentence, does not express a compete thought, but is a sentence-fragment: ' The foolish fear/that God is dead.'
A good writer avoids ambiguity except when he intends it.
I got my quarterly haircut the other day. A neighbor remarked, "I see you got a haircut," to which I responded with the old joke, "I got 'em all cut."
What about 'pretty bad girls.' Are they pretty and bad, or pretty bad? Is the ambiguity here both syntactic and semantic? After all, if something is pretty bad, it is not pretty.
Ain't English fun? And why is 'pretty' pronounced like 'pity' and not like 'petty'? It is because of history, toward which we conservatives feel a sort of natural piety.