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“The happiest people are those who are too busy to notice whether they are or not.” - What? Happy or Busy?

It is not clear whether the proverb talks about happiness or being busy. Where should the punctuation marks be put in order to remove any ambiguity?

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    There seems to be no big ambiguity. Putting "busy" or "happy" before "or" seems to be a better solution than putting any punctuation marks in your sentence. – user24743 Jan 4 '16 at 7:24
  • I think this was posted before here – Peter Jan 4 '16 at 7:25
  • Imaginary colon: "...those who are: too busy..." – lurker Jan 4 '16 at 7:31
  • @autumn_season I don't think any amount of punctuation will remove the ambiguity you're suggesting exists. Additional words, yes. As per (at)Ranthony +1 – Peter Jan 4 '16 at 7:51
  • The punctuation stays in your pocket. Just because it's English does not mean that it's perverse. "Too busy to notice whether one is busy"? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jan 4 '16 at 12:07
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It seems to me that there is no punctuation which could remove the ambiguity from this sentence (that doesn't mean that I'm necessarily right, though!).

There is no position here, for example, where we could put a comma. We can't put a comma after the Subject (we don't put commas between a Subject and the verb). We can't put a comma after are because we don't put commas between the verb and its Complement (the complement here is those who are too busy to notice whether they are or not).

We cannot put a comma between the word those and the word who, because this is an integrated (read "non-defining" or "non-restrictive") relative clause.

We can't put a comma after who; it's the subject of the relative clause. We can't put a comma after are because it is followed directly by its Complement. We can't put a comma after too busy because the section that comes afterwards is the Complement of that phrase. We can't put a comma after notice because the phrase that follows notice is the complement of that verb.

The only way I can see to disambiguate the sentence is to put the adjective back after the third are. This would give us either:

  • The happiest people are those who are too busy to notice whether they are happy or not.

  • The happiest people are those who are too busy to notice whether they are busy or not.

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