Go high or go low

From Federico Escobar on the 6th, this screen shot from the Washington Post:

(I’d give you a link, but the story seems to have been substantially rewritten, and this passage is gone.) The problem lies in the highlighted part, repeated below, in which the intended reading of the sentence is likely to be overshadowed by a more easily available, but (on reflection) preposterous reading:

NATO says those killed in the downed NATO copter in Afghanistan included 20 members of an elite counterrorism [that is, counterterrorism — nice orthographic haplology] unit that carried out the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, seven Afghan commandos and a civilian interpreter.

The intended reading involves parallelism at a high level, with three coordinate objects for the verb included:

[A] included
[1] 20 members of an elite counterterrorism unit
that carried out the mission to kill Osama bin Laden,
[2] seven Afghan commandos
and [3] a civilian interpreter

whereas the reading many will see initially involves parallelism at a lower level:

[B] included 20 members of an elite counterterrorism unit
that carried out the mission to kill
[1] Osama bin Laden,
[2] seven Afghan commandos
and [3] a civilian interpreter

Call these “high parallelism” and “low parallelism”, respectively. The analogy here is to “high attachment” vs. “low attachment” for modifiers, as in

A resident reported a large animal in a tree with tall and pointed ears. (link)

— one of innumerable examples in which a writer intended high attachment (a large animal with tall and pointed ears), though readers will be at first inclined to see the default low attachment (a tree with tall and pointed ears). More discussion here.

Similarly, the WaPo writer intended high parallelism, though readers will be inclined to see low parallelism, which reduces the processing burden on the reader.

[Note: In this particular case, the commas are irrelevant. The WaPo doesn’t use the serial comma (and I’ve preserved that practice in [A] and [B] above), but since in both parsings, three expressions are conjoined, a serial comma wouldn’t differentiate the two.]

How to subvert the reader’s inclination to go for low parallelism, short of a complete recasting of the material? One possibility would be to try

included [2] seven Afghan commandos, [3] a civilian interpreter and [1] 20 members of an elite counterterrorism unit that carried out the mission to kill Osama bin Laden

but that’s not at all satisfactory, since it puts the most newsworthy conjunct, [3], last.

Another possibility would be to use another connective in addition to and:

included [1] 20 members of an elite counterterrorism unit that carried out the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, plus [2] seven Afghan commandos and [3] a civilian interpreter

That still could be understood as having low parallelism, though that reading is less likely. But some editors disfavor the connective plus in formal writing.

Then there’s the possibility of switching the punctuation:

included [1] 20 members of an elite counterterrorism unit that carried out the mission to kill Osama bin Laden; [2] seven Afghan commandos; and [3] a civilian interpreter

That’s definitely my favorite, short of reworking the whole thing (which seems to be what the WaPo did).

2 Responses to “Go high or go low”

  1. ShadowFox Says:

    There is a second ambiguity based on the military definition of “unit”. The 20 SEALs killed in the crash were indeed members of the same unit, but NONE of them were actually involved in the operation to kindnap/kill OBL. That is, the unit is a larger entity that encompasses several subunits, one of which was actually involved in the OBL mission and quite ANOTHER was killed in the shot down helicopter. I’ve noticed identical or nearly identical phrasing in several versions of the story that appeared in different publications and some of them eventually added the clarification that NONE of the OBL-mission subunit were involved in the latest incident.

  2. F. Escobar Says:

    Interesting analysis, and the additional ambiguity pointed out by ShadowFox was also interesting.

    In my case, what got me out of the interpretative rut that led me toward the wrong side of the ambiguity was not something textual, but rather something essentially extratextual. It was the conviction that a newspaper would not nonchalantly report that a unit had killed a civilian interpreter. It was the feeling of discomfort toward that aspect of the story that forced me to reread until educing the other, intended meaning.

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