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A story of mine has the following sentence:

Alyssa was possessed by a sudden, fierce urge to snatch the teacup out of her sister's hand and dump the contents into her perfectly arranged hair.

On further reflection, I realized this sentence is ambiguous: I never said which of the two gets the tea dumped on her head. Except, I'm not sure that the sentence really needs fixing - it wouldn't make sense for Alyssa to get mad and dump the tea on her own head. (I tried to replace the pronoun with her sister's name, but the resulting sentence just felt... clumsy.)

Is there a way I can objectively tell if an ambiguous sentence will cause confusion and needs to be fixed?

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    Gut feeling and beta readers are how I tell... – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jul 13 at 12:36
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    I can see a second ambiguity: is it the contents of the teacup, or the sister's hand, that are to be dumped? – gidds Jul 13 at 21:29
  • Objectively it's ambiguous. I found it ambiguous, because I don't know if Alyssa is the type of person to pour things on her own head as a joke, or to pour things on her sister's head out of pique. Context might resolve it, but if you or a test reader feel the ambiguity and lose flow as a result, then it's better fixed. (I would try "onto (sister's name)'s perfectly arranged hair" as I think adding a name here creates a little pomposity, but you weren't asking that.) – MZB Jul 15 at 23:38
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Alyssa is upset with her sister. Assuming that this will be make even more obvious by context, I think the text is fine as it is.

You could make the sentence perfectly clear, but keep in mind that this isn't tech writing. The protagonist is angry here, and probably not thinking logically. Trying to achieve perfect clarify would probably take the soul of the writing away.

  • "This isn't tech writing" - Now I wonder how much 3 years' worth of tech writing is messing with my style. I'll try to avoid the "Assume the person reading this is screaming in frustration" mindset in the future. :-) – Evil Sparrow-Reinstate Monica Jul 14 at 15:01
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As an observation, sentences are typically embedded in paragraphs. If there is an (potential) ambiguity, I might add a reaction sentence to the paragraph, such as, "The sister, Mary, sputtered in shock." Or screeched, yelled, threw a hay-maker, quoted an obscure Latin phrase, or anything else keeping with the assaulted sister's character.

Unless the reader is analyzing the text word by word, the flow of the material should carry the reader along so quickly that the (potential) ambiguity is disposed of before it is even recognized by the reader. If the story and the characters are good, the readers will forgive such minor vaults, if they ever notice them. My advice is to focus on delivering quality in those areas and not tie yourself in knots over subtle points of grammar. Most readers will recognize that that the story has given them pleasure. A few readers will seek to find fault; no amount of analysis, refinement, or quality will stop them from finding something. Focus on those readers who are having a good time, not those who are focused on giving the writer a bad time.

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If the object pronoun, ‘her’ in this case, doesn’t have a clear antecedent then the sentence will be ambiguous.

By convention, the object pronoun is associated with the nearest object noun. There are exceptions since this is English and rules are only suggestions for the most part.

The first occurrence of ‘her’ is potentially ambiguous since there isn’t a clear object noun to link it to. If there were more people present, and some of them were sisters then you wouldn’t whose sister it referred to.

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Context will make this clear. If it doesnt yet, add enough context. For example you could mention earlier who has perfectly arranged hair of the two.

Besides that, there is more subtile context. Has the sister done anything to deserve that thought? Is the Protagonist envious of her sister looks? Or does the protagonist want to portray herself as a crazy Person in Front of her sister friends who think she has a perfect family?

Any one of these situations makes it clear enough what is meant.

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