On Twitter, @QT4SHO1922 referred to this headline of a Huffington Post story and mischievously asked:
He's a former gay?This is a stellar example of how syntax affects semantics. Syntax refers to the order in which words and phrases are placed in a sentence. Semantics refers to the meaning that is conveyed. Good syntax is vital for clear, unambiguous writing.
Where does the Huffington Post go wrong? As @QT4SHO1922 points out, the phrase "former gay leader" implies that the leader was once, but is no longer, gay. We all know that's not what the writer meant, but the headline's poor syntax causes confusion. Are we talking about a former gay person, a former leader, or both?
Also, the word "former" is redundant here. Any leader who has been dismissed is a former leader.
Quick style tips:
- Keep related words together to ensure that your meaning is clear. For example, we can fix the Huffington Post headline by switching the order of the modifiers. Duke College Republicans See Budget Cuts, May Lose Charter Over Gay Former Leader's Dismissal. While "former gay leader" is confusing, "gay former leader" is clear.
- Omit needless words to avoid redundancy.
- Duke College Republicans See Budget Cuts, May Lose Charter Over Gay Leader's Dismissal