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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Double entendre Oxymoron

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“Practice makes a man perfect”, so goes the saying. So what makes a woman perfect? Perhaps she already is. Alright, that was lame. But that’s not the point of this post.

Consider the sentence: “No practice makes a man perfect”. Does it mean that not doing any practice makes a man perfect (and practice ruins perfection), or that, no amount of practice will make a man perfect? Is there any grammatical mistake in this sentence or does it convey two contrasting but legitimate meanings? Does this phenomenon has a linguistic definition? What are other examples of such kind?


Partha Pratim said...

The sentence, “No practice makes a man perfect,” is normally expected to mean that no amount of practice will make you perfect. With some violence it can be made to mean also that absence of practice makes one perfect. This is an instance of ambiguity, created by sentence structure. There are plenty of examples. Let me give you a famous one from Noam Chomsky: “Flying planes can be dangerous.” Or take the sentence: “I gave her cat food.”

Most of these sentences are not at all ambiguous in a given context, which is where language is normally used. In fact, if you utter these sentences, most of the ambiguities disappear. Only grammarians deal with sentences pulled out of contexts.

There is, however, another brilliant linguistic phenomenon called ‘double entendre.’ This is where the same expression can take two meanings in the same context. The obvious meaning is usually a safe one, and the second one a little risky, often with sexual connotations. So you merely want to imply it.

(With inputs from Prof. M M Monippally)

Ashish Gupta said...

Calm down Partho! And congratulations on your comment exceeding the length of my post. It's not unusual but it's first on this blog :)

Now on topic. It's not necessarily out of context. If you say you've been learning to skip a rope and I say above sentence, will context help you figure out my meaning?

And yes, there are good examples you gave where a sentence can mean two things, but I was specifically looking for when two things are diagonically opposite of each other. Hence the use of title 'double entendre' (double meaning) 'oxymoron' (contrasting meaning).

Partha Pratim said...

Ashish, i guess the entire thing has been misinterpreted. I discussed your doubts with Prof. MMM. The entire reply is of Prof. MMM which he send me in reply to my mail. I, as a matter of fact found your post very interesting against what you are thinking it to be. I guess the mail in your instimail box will remove all your doubts. Kindly have a look there.

Ashish Gupta said...

Oh, well, I stand corrected (in parts). I didn't think that you thought it uninteresting but when you mentioned Prof. Monippally's name, I assumed you were recounting his examples from class. How was I to know that you mailed him my query today itself? But it's definitely nice to know that you took so deep interest in finding out answer. Perhaps I can continue discussion wiht professor there and will keep you in loop.

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