The possibility of misinterpretations


Consider the following sentence:

“I think the spirits have gotten to him.”

If you’re a child, or a member of a tribe with an ancient mindset, you might think, “Supernatural forces have attacked him.”

If you’re a cosmopolitan fellow living in a big city, you might think, “Ah — this guy has had too much liquor.”

Except for the equivocal use of “spirits,” the syntactic and semantic structure is the same.

I was thinking through something I read earlier today: “Sentences exhibiting the same syntactic and semantic structure may be asserted in wholly different modes of identification.”

That’s Walker Percy in his essay, “The Symbolic Structure of Interpersonal Process,” which was published in The Message in the Bottle.

I’m not sure, however, equivocation (my above example) is exactly what he is getting at.

His example seems less a matter of equivocation and more a matter of understanding different processes behind the same central meaning of the sentence.

Percy’s example of a “syntactic and semantic structure … asserted in wholly different modes of identification” is as follows:

“My son John has become a roentgenologist.”

That sentence “has the logical form of the assertion of class membership,” Percy writes.

But this “sentence can be asserted in more than one mode,” he says.

Thus, if a psychiatrist should hear his patient utter the above sentence, he may very well understanding, knowing her as he does, that she is asserting a magic mode of class membership. Her son John has gone off to a scientific place where he has undergone a mystical transformation and emerged as a roentgenologist. Another patient may assert the same sentence and be quite clearly understood to mean that her son has acquired a skill which it is convenient to speak of as a class membership.

In poetry, the possibilities of multiple meanings are exciting. In journalism, multiple meanings are problematic.

However, the two patients in the above quotation are dealing neither with poetic language nor with a professional obligation to clarity in language.

The two patients above seem to represent two radically different mentalities which generate two radically different interpretations of a sentence.

Speaking in such a way that one absolutely cannot be misinterpreted might just be impossible.

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