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Readability And Eliminating Unintentional Ambiguity: That's Where It Starts


Fred the Barber

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Ambiguity is a fascinating element of language, one an editor both struggles with and celebrates regularly. On the celebration side of things, ambiguity is an essential tool in the setup of a lot of short jokes, for one. As an example, an ambiguous statement leads to a misunderstanding, and in a VN said misunderstanding usually leads to an accidental love confession, resulting in the unfortunate victim stammering outrageously while blushing like a sunset. How cute. Ambiguity can also be a powerful tool in foreshadowing, since it allows a single statement to be interpreted in two ways, of which one can be applicable to the immediate present, thus making it a perfectly reasonable line to have in the present, and the other only meaningful when considering future events, usually causing the reader to look back and say, "Ahh-hah, now I see what it really meant." Ambiguity is also absolutely essential in writing clever blog post titles. But on the struggling side, ambiguity is often an enemy getting in the way of your reader enjoying your text.

As you read, your brain furiously analyzes words as they come in, building up and tearing down many possible syntactical structures for the sentence and many possible semantic interpretations of the various words and phrases, before eventually trimming this all down to a single interpretation of the sentence, typically over the course of a tiny fraction of a second. However, there are many stumbling blocks which can lengthen this process or thwart it entirely, notably including actual errors (misspellings, dropped words, incorrect grammar, etc.,), which is probably the chief reason why such errors are so frowned-upon in typical writing. Slowing down the reader's understanding, or preventing it entirely, is generally not the author's goal, assuming said author is not James Joyce.

Setting aside actual errors, ambiguity is one of the main impediments to a reader's understanding. Since one of a VN editor's chief goals is to ensure a script flows well for a reader, eliminating unintentional ambiguity is an important sub-goal. Even outside of intentional usage like in the cases mentioned in the first paragraph, ambiguity in English is still incredibly common, with small ambiguities cropping up constantly while reading essentially any text. Let's take a look at an example of a super-small ambiguity which slows down the reader just a tiny bit, a sentence containing my least favorite word:

Quote

I told you that I gave you the unburnt piece of toast, right?

Looks fine, right? As a whole the sentence is totally unambiguous. But while you're reading it, you're going to run into "that", and "that"'s a problem. "That" is an incredibly flexible word in the English language: it's a pronoun, a determiner, an adverb, and a relative pronoun. It's actually even more flexible in British English, where it can act as a subordinating conjunction, and even though most VN translations are written in American English, the lines there are pretty fuzzy, and it wouldn't be surprising or confusing to see a sentence like "He asked that she go" in a VN.

Now, in the sentence above, "that" is being used as a relative pronoun, but the prefix of this sentence, "I told you that" is also a perfectly well-formed English sentence in which it's instead being used as a pronoun, and if your brain follows such an interpretation immediately as you read the sentence, it'll take it a few extra milliseconds for your brain to unwedge itself, reorganize into treating "that" as a relative pronoun, and continue on forming the correct interpretation.

All right, doesn't sound like a big deal, does it? You're right. This particular, single instance isn't. But they add up, and you can do better, so you might as well. To put it in super technical jargon I didn't know until I was writing up this post, English has a so-called "zero relative pronoun" which can be used in place of relative pronouns like "that" which are introducing restrictive relative clauses. To give an example, since the previous jargon is so technical as to be basically useless, instead of the above sentence, you can just drop "that" and write:

Quote

I told you I gave you the unburnt piece of toast, right?

Now, look, I'm not saying this makes a huge difference, but doesn't this version feel a tiny bit better when you read it? Eliminating usage of overly-flexible words like "that" is a good way to reduce some ambiguity, but keep in mind this is a single example of a specific case. It just happened to be the one which prompted this blog post. However, I assure you, if you start reading your work with a careful eye out for the clarity of each line, you'll find tons of small, unintentional ambiguities popping out at you which you want to correct. Training yourself to look for them and to clean them up is one part of helping your text flow better.

I guess that's that. I hope you got something out of that, and I ask that, if you have questions, comments, or problems regarding this or "that", you leave a note below to that effect.

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Now that's one long blog post about removing extraneous words

WEE1's translation had a bad case of lack of zero relative pronoun. The translators were actually native English speakers as far as I could tell, so I wonder what they were trying for - just playing it safe? Sounding proper? Being lazy? A terminal case of the YukkuriS? - I guess we'll never know.

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Must be a British (or Australian in my case) English thing but the original with the zero relative pronoun sounds more natural to me... I wonder what other Br/Au natives think.

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19 minutes ago, ittaku said:

Must be a British (or Australian in my case) English thing but the original with the zero relative pronoun sounds more natural to me... I wonder what other Br/Au natives think.

Australian here, the original sentence is horrible. Like seriously horrible. I don't even like the sentence it ended up at - "I told you I gave you the unburnt piece of toast, right?" Repetition of 'you' is eyecatching. May be replaced with 'said', with the 'to you' implied:

"I said I gave you the unburnt piece of toast, right?"

"Didn't I say I gave you the unburnt piece of toast?"

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3 minutes ago, Darklord Rooke said:

Australian here, the original sentence is horrible. Like seriously horrible. I don't even like the sentence it ended up at - "I told you I gave you the unburnt piece of toast, right?" Repetition of 'you' is eyecatching. May be replaced with 'said', with the 'to you' implied:

"I said I gave you the unburnt piece of toast, right?"

"Didn't I say I gave you the unburnt piece of toast?"

Sorry, that's how people around me speak though... Not sure why writing needs to make people who speak sound like they're all writers. It's one of my big bugbears - that people complain about the spoken word by characters not being correct grammar or that it sounds horrible.

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2 minutes ago, ittaku said:

Sorry, that's how people around me speak though... Not sure why writing needs to make people who speak sound like they're all writers. It's one of my big bugbears - that people complain about the spoken word by characters not being correct grammar or that it sounds horrible.

Because fiction has different goals to communication. Fiction has different goals to my group's weekly get together at the pub (which usually involves the underside of a table somewhere amirite :3) Genre fiction is about sucking people in and entertaining people with the story, and calling attention to the writing because it was written haphazardly is against those goals.

There have been people who tried writing dialogue exactly how people speak, complete with 'ers' 'umms' and 'ahs', but that was literature, the artsy genre.

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While I certainly agree that character dialogue needs to communicate characterization, through diction, syntactical choices, or even using bad grammar, the top priority is always that their dialogue be readable (unless very intentionally unreadable, of course, which should be exceptional).

Here's a completely different example of optimizing for readability, and one which should be near and dear to the hearts of many eroge players: even when the heroine has her mouth full of little protag, the way she slurs her consonants is usually not faithfully recorded in the subtitles, because to do so renders it completely unreadable (I know; I've tried). If you try to actually write down what the dialogue you have would sound like with a large, cylindrical object in your mouth, even though the speech may be completely understandable, the written form of it will usually not be. This, I believe, is because writing is such a low-resolution record of spoken speech. When you're missing all the extra intonation and the assorted sounds made in this circumstance which simply aren't writable in the Roman alphabet, it's hard to try to mimic the actual spoken sounds without going so far off the written version that the brain can no longer recognize the word. That's why, in this instance, most of the time you should massively tone down the consonant slurring, relative to the voice over, in the written text.

That sounds pretty unrelated, but it's still on this same theme of optimizing for readability. The most important thing isn't even if you agree with either of those examples at all, but rather that you understand and agree with the broader principle of which these are just two instances. Throughout most of most VNs, you should generally be optimizing for ease and speed of readability, where you can do so without sacrificing tone, characterization, etc.,

Edited by Fred the Barber
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1 hour ago, Fred the Barber said:

Here's a completely different example of optimizing for readability, and one which should be near and dear to the hearts of many eroge players: even when the heroine has her mouth full of little protag, the way she slurs her consonants is usually not faithfully recorded in the subtitles, because to do so renders it completely unreadable (I know; I've tried). If you try to actually write down what the dialogue you have would sound like with a large, cylindrical object in your mouth, even though the speech may be completely understandable, the written form of it will usually not be. This, I believe, is because writing is such a low-resolution record of spoken speech. When you're missing all the extra intonation and the assorted sounds made in this circumstance which simply aren't writable in the Roman alphabet, it's hard to try to mimic the actual spoken sounds without going so far off the written version that the brain can no longer recognize the word. That's why, in this instance, most of the time you should massively tone down the consonant slurring, relative to the voice over, in the written text.

Interestingly enough that doesn't appear to be a problem in Japanese where an attempt is always made to do a faithful rendition of what the diction sounds like when orally stuffed. It is also almost always understandable too... but that's probably because Japanese is such a bastard of a language that you end up relying on all sorts of cues to understand it even when it is clearly rendered. What I have seen on occasion is do the rendition in cock-speak and then explain it in parentheses, which could work quite well in English; doing so is also quite amusing.

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