[lit-ideas] Re: Conversation Without Implicature

  • From: John McCreery <john.mccreery@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sat, 25 Jun 2011 14:45:20 -0400

Quick online searches in a variety of dictionaries suggest that the primary
definitions of ambiguity are

1. Indistinct or obscure, or
2. Susceptible of two or more interpretations

I have no trouble believing that lawyers would like to see ambiguity as a
choice between distinct meanings, since it is their job to argue for one or
another. But the the assumption that there must be distinct meanings, as
opposed, for example, to a soup of nuances, seems to me, like the assumption
that there must be a clear answer to every question, disputable. It is
sufficient for most human activity for there to be sufficient overlap in
interpretations for actions to be coordinated. It is, as any married man can
tell you, often unwise in the extreme to press for sharper definition.


On Sat, Jun 25, 2011 at 2:04 PM, Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>wrote:

> Perhaps I don't understand the term "ambiguity" but I thought it denoted
> statements that had more than one distinct meaning ["He was trapped in a
> vice"] whereas this post seems to concern something that is definite enough
> as far as it goes, but where it is left open-ended beyond that point.
> Deliberate "open-endedness" seems more apt here than deliberate ambiguity.
> In legal and political contexts "open-endedness" is often valuable, as is
> the "wriggle room" left by it, but ambiguity is rarely valuable, since it
> raises the question of one's 'distinct' meaning.
> Donal
> --- On Sat, 25/6/11, John McCreery <john.mccreery@xxxxxxxxx> wrote:
> From: John McCreery <john.mccreery@xxxxxxxxx>
> Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: Conversation Without Implicature
> To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
> Date: Saturday, 25 June, 2011, 18:21
> Ambiguity in language is just as much a useful tool as precision.  There
> are times when each is to be preferred, but surely we use language to
> increase ambiguity as well as reduce it, even in non-poetic contexts.
> Yes, indeed. Here's an example.
> In the early/mid 1990s I was recruited by Paul Guilefoile, the best account
> executive I ever worked with, to help with the pitches that won Hakuhodo
> Lintas the relaunch of Coke Light and, later, the launch of Caffeine Free
> Diet Coke in Japan. Together Paul and I worked out three important rules for
> working with Coca-Cola.
> 1. Use Coca-Cola language and respect their taboos. Back then, for example,
> the adjective "refreshing" could be applied only to classic red can Coke.
> Using their language the way they used it demonstrated our familiarity with
> their business and corporate culture.
> 2. Say something unexpected. Simply repeating what they told us would lead
> to their concluding, quite properly, that we were adding nothing of value to
> them. The art was in finding a new angle or line for development that they
> hadn't thought of themselves, but presenting it to them in language that
> they would find familiar and, thus, reassuring.
> 3. This was Paul's contribution, and I will always remember it. Appear to
> speak as concretely as possible—but be sure to leave some wiggle room. The
> rationale, in the context in which we worked, was persuasive: Planning and
> producing advertising, especially TV commercials, requires input from all
> sorts of people with different skills, and the better they are at their jobs
> the more they insist on their own "creative input." So our presentations had
> to leave room for on-the-spot modifications, in location, direction,
>  costuming, narration, dubbing, editing—modifications that would not be seen
> by the client as violating the promises made in the presentation
> storyboards. Changing, for instance, the cut of the model's dress might be
> acceptable; replacing Coke red with a pinker or more orange red that caught
> the director's or stylist's eye—that was definitely out.
> I have since come to believe that this sort of what we might call
> "strategic ambiguity" is an essential part of business and political
> activity, and one whose importance grows with the size of the organizations
> and the diversity of interests involved. I would even go so far as to
> suggest that it plays an important role in academic life as well. After all,
> to become a "big idea," an idea has to start out with sufficient ambiguity
> to allow disciples and colleagues to develop and refine it. Perfect
> solutions are, I suspect, more often than not, simply forgotten, clearing
> the way for new debates.
> Some of these speculations may seem over the top. But the example, at
> least, may serve to illustrate John Wager's excellent point.
> John
> --
> John McCreery
> The Word Works, Ltd., Yokohama, JAPAN
> Tel. +81-45-314-9324
> jlm@xxxxxxxxxxxx
> http://www.wordworks.jp/
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John McCreery
The Word Works, Ltd., Yokohama, JAPAN
Tel. +81-45-314-9324

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