June 20, 2003

More Ambiguity

I recently wrote an essay on ambiguity introduced into sentences because of the absence of commas (see “Commas”). I think this has made me more sensitive to liguinstic ambiguity generally. The latest instance I’ve noticed was in a television commercial for La Quinta Inns. I thought I had heard something like “stay three nights and get one night free,” though the company’s Web site says: “Stay 3 times. Get a night free!” Consider this latter offer. It suggests that you must register at a La Quinta Inn on three different occasions, but do you get a free night during your third stay, or does your free night come on the fourth or subsequent stay? One cannot tell from the slogan. In such cases, the ambiguity usually favors the vendor, rather than the customer. That is indeed the case here. After three stays, one earns a “free night certificate,” and the fine print explains that you cannot speed up your certificate earning by checking out and checking back in on the same day.

June 12, 2003


I often see people write “can not” where they actually mean “cannot.” I have tended to dismiss this as a spelling error, but a sentence I encountered today made me look a little deeper into the matter. Here, I simplify that sentence: “We should do everything we can not to raise taxes.” In this sentence, we cannot substitute “cannot” for “can not”—the unrelated words “can” and “not” are juxtaposed rather by accident.

In fact, “cannot” is the negative form of “can,” and the only thing that can be substituted for it directly is the contraction “can’t.” Consider this sentence: “We cannot raise taxes.” This sentence has the meaning either that we should not raise taxes or that we are incapable of raising taxes. But what happens if we substitute “can not” for “cannot”? We get this sentence: “We can not raise taxes.” This sentence might have slightly different connotations depending upon the context, but the basic meaning is nearly the opposite of one of the meanings of the corresponding sentence containing “cannot”—it means that not raising taxes is an option, but the implication is that raising taxes is an option, perhaps the most obvious or likely one.

Think carefully when next you are tempted to write “can not.”

June 5, 2003


Seldom is conversation in real life as witty as it is in art. Occasionally, however, exchanges do occur naturally that deserve to be savored. Here are two examples.

I was staying at a motel outside Columbus, Ohio, recently and had gone to a nearby McDonald’s to gather some breakfast. Returning to the motel, I parked near the door and got out of my car holding a drink carrier, drinks, a bag of food, napkins, and straws. Two maids were entering the building just ahead of me. One, helpfully, held open the door. Intent upon providing further assistance and apparently thinking that I was cleaning out the car, asked as I approached, “Is that trash?”

“Yes,” I replied, “but I’m going to eat it anyway.”

I was not the party of wit in a conversation a few days ago. My heating and air conditioning company called to schedule a pre-season air conditioning inspection. The phone rang just after I had stepped out of the shower. I ran into the bedroom and answered the telephone. After introducing himself, my caller explained, “We’d like to come over to inspect your air conditioning.”

“When?” I asked.

“This morning, sometime in the next hour and a half.”

I knew I would need to move some things away from the basement air handler, and I had other plans for the morning, so I wanted to delay a visit. “Well,” I said, “I just got out of the shower, and I’m sitting on the bed without any clothes on,” perhaps disclosing more than was absolutely necessary.

“Are you planning to do that all day?” was the immediate reply.

We quickly agreed to an afternoon appointment.