Judy Hagey

Nonfiction Editor ~ Freelance Writer

All’s Fair in Love and Words

The headline was confusing to say the least.

“No foul play in fair food prices”

Huh?

It’s not that foul and fair should never appear in a sentence together. Take this example:

Everyone agreed calling the long ball foul was fair.

Perhaps not the best sentence, but in this context most readers understand the intended meanings of foul (a ball hit out of bounds) and fair (a just or right call). They are straightforward. Not ambiguous, like the headline.

The adjective ambiguous and its noun counterpart, ambiguity, refer to words or actions that exhibit more than one meaning; things that can be understood in more than one way. It comes from the Latin ambigere meaning to wander about, waver. The prefix ambi means both or on both sides. Thus an ambidextrous person is equally facile with either right or left hand. That’s the word the headline writer ought to have used to describe Pat Venditte’s feat earlier this summer of using both arms to pitch one game—not amphibious.

The Greek amphi has a small but important distinction from ambi—of both kinds. Amphibious creatures are able to live on land and water. Amphibious pitchers?? I'm not sure where they live.

The English language, with its multiple meanings and idioms for particular words or phrases, lends itself to the kind of ambiguities found in that recent headline. Late night comedians have been having a field day with far more humorous and ambiguous phrasings for some time. Here’s a sampling:

Kids Make Nutritious Snacks

Queen Mary Having Bottom Scraped

Quarter of a Million Chinese Live on Water

Laugh if you will (and I hope you do enjoy the humor in these and other such headlines), but in our increasingly technological age, the ambiguities of our language create unique challenges for computer programmers. Unlike the human brain which under most circumstances is able to sort through a word’s multiple meanings and land on the right one for a particular situation, a computer cannot determine which of the 600+ meanings of run you’re looking for if you query “running gag.”

So what exactly was that ambiguous headline trying to convey? The article answered a reader’s query about food prices at the state fair. Seems every vendor had the same prices for the same product, begging the question whether there was collusion or price fixing going on. Regulators assured the investigative reporter no such complaints had ever been filed. And thus the clever copyeditor proclaimed no foul play in fair food prices.

I can offer one suggestion that would have communicated less cleverly and less ambiguously—State Fair Food Prices are Fair. Or No Foul Play Found in Setting State Fair Food Prices.

Too long, I suppose, for a front page headline, but simply inserting “state” and clarifying the specific set of food prices in question would have gone a long way to eliminating my “huh?” response.

But then again, it did have its desired effect. It got me to read the article.

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