OT: excellent book on information theory

Steven D'Aprano steve at REMOVETHIScyber.com.au
Sat Jan 21 18:38:54 EST 2006

On Sat, 21 Jan 2006 21:01:53 +0000, Tom Anderson wrote:

> As Dave Hansen pointed out, "Harry smiled vaguely back", means that the 
> direction Harry was smiling was vaguely back - might have been a bit to 
> the side or something.

That's an extremely artificial interpretation of the sentence, even if it
is grammatically possible. Who talks about smiling in a physical
direction? Does anyone ever say "He smiled forward" or "She smiled
north-by-north-east" or "She smiled to the side"?

The only thing even close to what you're talking about is "He smiled out
of the corner (or side) of his mouth" -- not the same thing at all.

"Smiled vaguely back" is a clumsy construction, and any decent editor
should change it to "smiled back vaguely" regardless of whether they are
from the US or UK. But clumsy or not, you're really pushing the envelope
to get the interpretation that he smiled in a direction which was
vaguely back.

Yes, the sentence "He smiled vaguely back" is grammatically ambiguous, but
semantically can have only one meaning: he returned a smile, but his smile
was vague. 

"He vaguely smiled back" suffers the same fate. It too can imply that the
smile was vague, or that the smile was only vaguely in return. Both
interpretations are grammatically possible, but the second is semantically
dubious. A good editor from any country is supposed to weed out clumsy,
confusing sentences like that, and replace them with the grammatically
unambiguous equivalent "he smiled back vaguely". This isn't a localisation
issue, it is a command of language issue.


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