4

This is a bit complicated to explain. Here's an example:

She had green eyes and extremely curly hair. It looked like a cluster of ferns in a mountain forest.

OK, that was an awful metaphor, but you get the idea. Is it OK as long as the next sentence is clear about which item is referring to? Or should I write something like this instead?

She had green eyes and extremely curly hair. The hair looked like a cluster of ferns in a mountain forest.

2
  • 1
    FWIW, as a reader (not a writer) I think this is OK, as long as it is clear which item the next sentence is referring to. It doesn't even need to be clear immediately, I don't mind thinking about what I am reading (be it syntax or semantics).
    – 11684
    Sep 13 '14 at 19:51
  • Is there any chance of ambiguity? Not in this example, but consider: "Her green eyes gazed at the fridge contents way past their use-by dates. They were pale, blotchy, and a little fuzzy." Until I got to "fuzzy" did you know which I meant? Sep 14 '14 at 18:33
4

Yes. Unless your following metaphor is easily related to one or the other.

"She has green eyes and red hair. It looked like a wild forrest fire...." Then people can easily relate it to the hair, and not the eyes.

4

The second option is OK, if you can smooth out the phrasing.

What would be more ideal is if you could rephrase to avoid the problem, to avoid lumping the two items together in the first place - for example:

She had green eyes, and curly hair that looked like a cluster of ferns in a mountain forest.

Another option is completing the list, and then finding some way to go back and focus on one individual item. You should be able to find some justification for this, because you've already found some reason that the one item deserves extra attention. For example:

She had green eyes and curly hair. Oh, such extraordinarily curly hair! -- it looked like a cluster of ferns in a mountain forest.

2

I think you'd do better moving the mention of hair to the second sentence:

She had green eyes. Her hair curled like ferns clustered in a mountain forest.

Or one sentence:

She had green eyes and her hair curled like ferns clustered in a mountain forest.

Having said that, I'm not really able to picture ferns as hair, but that might just be me.

1

You could even use it to keep people in suspense, I suppose. Maybe tell a story about it, whatever it is.. You just hint at it from various angles, before finally revealing what this 'it' is that you were keeping people in suspense over...

0

The key is to make the connection reasonably obvious.

Simple example. "Bob and Fred entered the office. He sat behind the desk." Who sat behind the desk, Bob or Fred? We don't know. You'd have to change something to make it clear.

But, "Bob and Sally entered the office. He sat behind the desk." Now there's no ambiguity. If it was Sally who sat behind the desk we would have written "she", not "he".

Often we can pretty well guess which is meant from our general knowledge of the nature of things. "The man and his cat entered the office. The doorway was so low that he bumped his head as they entered." I think we'd assume that it was the man who bumped his head, because people are normally taller than cats. If your intent is that this is a very large cat, then you need to spell it out.

Writers sometimes get tripped up on what they think is obvious versus what the reader thinks is obvious. My mind went blank on real examples, but I know I've stumbled across these now and then. If there's any possible ambiguity, I'd spell it out.

In your example, it's hard to imagine how someone's eyes could look like a cluster of ferns, so I don't see this as being much of a problem. But ... maybe someone would think that your intent was to say that her eyes were green like ferns.

When in doubt, reword to make it clear.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.