What’s an amphiboly?

By Jay Jamison

“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.” This is a line spoken by Groucho Marx in the character of Captain Spalding in the movie, “Animal Crackers.” It is also a splendid example of an amphiboly. I became acquainted with this concept in a logic class I took at Illinois College back in the age of car window cranks and dial telephones.

We tend to disassociate jokes and funny lines with the study of logic. After all, logic is a serious, sober enterprise associated with mythical characters, like the utterly humorless Mr. Spock, of Star Trek fame. However, had it not been for my exposure to the study of logic, I’d have never become acquainted with the explanation of what made Groucho’s line so funny, wagging cigar and arching eyebrows notwithstanding. When hearing discussions on politics, society and even economics, we’re often confronted with arguments that don’t make sense. We have a feeling something’s wrong, but we’re often at a loss trying to identify the flaw.

Logic is the study of arguments. In this study, we want to know what makes an argument a good one — and also, what makes an argument a bad one. Eliminating ambiguity is one of several goals in constructing good arguments. An expression is ambiguous when words or phrases can have two or more possible meanings, and the context does not clearly determine which of the possible meanings is the one intended.

Take another look at Groucho’s elephant shooting amphiboly. The ambiguity is expressly revealed in the second line, which also makes it funny. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to read a legal document; a contract or a lease; or worse yet, the terms and conditions for using software, one discovers early on that they make for dreadful reading. One reason for this is that they are expressly written to remove any hint of ambiguity. Every term is strictly defined, and every sentence is precisely constructed to remove any misunderstanding.

When the words are ambiguous, it is often an example of equivocation, the same words being used in at least two different ways in the same passage. Still, in Groucho’s aforementioned lines, the terms “morning,” “shot,” “elephant” and “pajamas” are not ambiguous in themselves. It is the way these terms are arranged in the sentences that make the expression ambiguous, thus making it an amphiboly.

Sometimes, due to space considerations, messages are cut down to the smallest number of words, which often makes the message ambiguous. Examples include the wartime poster: “Save Soap and Waste Paper,” or the sign on a tavern my undergraduate professor noted in the logic text he authored, “Clean and Decent Dancing Every Night Except Sunday.”

There are many informal fallacies described in the study of logic, and fallacies of ambiguity is a subset of these. I have advocated for the re-introduction of logic as part of the curriculum in our schools. I say re-introduced, because there was a time when courses in rhetoric, which often rely heavily on logic, were standard in school.

In addition to this mini amphiboly seminar, I confess to having committed a sin against humor. If you want to ruin a good joke, analyze it.

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