It doesn’t sound like a really funny word, but syntax is the key to much unintentional humour and miscommunication.
As a child I used to delight in Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes, limericks and riddles — as had a century of children before me. Syntaxually-challenged classified ads were a childish favourite: “For sale: grand piano, hardly used, by elderly lady with carved ebony legs.”
Hey, I was four!
Journalists can do it, too, and most of them are older than four.
Sometimes this leads to humour of a darker shade. The BBC reported† the disappearance of a man in Nepal saying “he was last seen being dragged from his home by soldiers wrapped in a blanket.”*
The most devastating effect of Australia’s current drought has not been to the trimmed, green lawns and herbaceous borders of the cities’ suburbia, but to those who provide the crops and herds to feed this and other countries.
So overwhelming have been the consequences of the drought on the many farmers and graziers that some have been driven to take their own lives.
A common slug line for this sad statistic was: “One farmer commits suicide every fours days.”
Australia does not in general celebrate Groundhog Day. If only the solution were as simple as finding this one farmer endlessly recycling himself and stopping him before he does himself a damage.
*Anyone who sends me an illustration inspired by the soldiers wrapped in a blanket may have it included here. Use the “contact me” form to reach my e-mail directly.
† Heard on BBC World Service, 31 August 2007.