Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Bad Ambiguity Strikes Again

I love the restaurant review book Eating Las Vegas by John Curtas, Max Jacobson, and Al Mancini. I think I'd keep buying the annual editions even if I never went to Las Vegas again, just to stay in touch with their views on restaurant trends.

I wish the book had been more thoroughly edited, though. Here's a line that doesn't work for me at all. It's a one-phrase review tucked into page 142 of a section called "Cheap Eats." The note about the  restaurant says:

Popular with locals who wouldn't know real Spanish tapas if they bit them on their Iberico.

(Iberico is a Spanish ham, in case you don't know, and "tapas" are small-plate dishes like appetizers.)

What bugs me: I can't parse the "if they bit them" bit. Normally that phrase would be used like this:

"You stupid editors wouldn't know a good short story if it bit you!"

In the second example, the short story is obviously biting the editor. And that works. But the original text is about food. How do you eat food? Quite often, by biting it. So "if they bit them" can be interpreted both ways: if the tapas bit the locals (the traditional joke sense), or if the locals bit the tapas (the literal sense). 

I suppose you could say that since both interpretations could work, there's no problem, but I disagree. I say that since both interpretations work, the writer has to clarify which one he (meaning John, Al, or Max) means. Which is a lot of work to put into a one-phrase dismissal of a restaurant, and might make the phrase less sharp and amusing. But I'd rather have a slightly less sharp line than one that makes readers wrinkle their brows and wonder what the author's talking about.

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