The Sentence That Does Not Make Sense

Sentence: The automobile was pusillanimous as it puttered off the line.

The above sentence would seem to make sense if one has a basic idea of the meaning of the words, but in reality, it doesn’t. An automobile is a word that refers to a specific type of mechanical device. The automobile is familiar in most developed and even many undeveloped parts of the world because it has become one of the world’s major forms of personal transportation. Generally speaking, the term automobile typically refers to a four-wheeled vehicle that has seats for four adults to sit comfortably and a separate enclosed trunk area for storage. Pusillanimous means something that is timid, cowardly, lacking in courage or resolution. This implies a sense of self-will and direction. The word puttered is a verb that describes a form of movement that is slow, halting, or unstable. Finally, the phrase ‘off the line’ can be used to refer to a number of actions. The most immediate understandings of the phrase as it relates to automobiles are that the car is coming ‘off the line’ as it finishes the process of production or that it is starting ‘off the line’ as if the car were in a race where all cars were arranged at a specific starting point. Because all of the elements of the sentence make sense, it is assumed that the sentence itself makes sense, but this is not the case.

The reason that the sentence doesn’t make sense is that it’s given no context and it uses words that can’t relate to each other. The word automobile, as has been mentioned, refers to a mechanical device that is used by people as a means of personal transportation. It is directed by people but has no personal will of its own. The word pusillanimous refers to a state of mind, action, or inaction of personal will in which the individual seems cowardly or timid. Because this is an action of self-will, an automobile, which does not have self-will, cannot possibly be pusillanimous. The car might start slow or move as if it’s afraid, but this is not an indication of individual character, it is the result of poor engines and cautious drivers. As a result, it does not make sense to refer to an automobile as pusillanimous because these terms cannot relate to each other – one is a machine and the other refers to individual acts of will which a car doesn’t have.

The sentence also provides the reader with no context by which to judge it. It is appropriate to refer to the motion of an old or slow automobile as puttering since this is often the sound it makes. As has been mentioned already, it is also appropriate to use the term ‘off the line’ when referring to an automobile. However, there is more than one way in which this term can be used – either as the ending of the production process or as the beginning of the race. The above sentence doesn’t offer any clue as to which meaning is intended. Is the car moving fearfully off the production line in anticipation of the accident it will be involved in sometime in the future? Maybe it is a coward when it comes time to start the race. The possibilities are much different from each other even if one gets past the idea that a car is an unconscious object that cannot experience emotion. As a result, the reader is left with no clear idea of what the sentence is attempting to express. Because the reader can’t know what the writer meant, the sentence does not make sense in the final analysis.

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