Verbal ambiguities are frequently the cause of laughter, sometimes at inappropriate moments. During the state funeral of the 41st President of the United States, for instance, many onlookers were touched by the loyalty of George Bush’s dog, who stayed in close proximity to his master to the very end. A reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald was moved to write the following words on the dog’s fidelity:
‘After accompanying the statesman and World War II veteran in the final months of his life, Sully, the late president’s service dog, lay before the casket holding what remained of him.’
The unintentional humour of this sentence reminded me of this other example from my schooldays:
‘Launching the ship with impressive ceremony, the Admiral’s daughter smashed a bottle of champagne over her stern as she slid gracefully down the slipway.’
In both cases, there is what might be called ‘subject-object’ confusion. In the latter example, ‘she’ could refer either to the Admiral’s daughter or to the ship (ships are frequently referred to as feminine objects). In the former, it’s not clear whether the object (the casket) is doing the ‘holding’ or the subject (Sully the dog).
To get an unambiguous sentence, we must therefore separate the subject and object.
In the case of the story of the late president, that is easily done by changing the participle form of the verb (‘holding’) into a relative clause starting with ‘that’ or ‘which’. This allows the object to have its own verb that is clearly not connected to Sully the dog:
‘After accompanying the statesman and World War II veteran in the final months of his life, Sully, the late president’s service dog, lay before the casket that held what remained of him.’
So we can change the wording to avoid embarrassment, but the question is whether we really want to. After all, it’s sometimes important to be able to laugh in the face of grief.