“Next year sees the publication of A Wilderness of Monkeys, Howard Jacbson’s literary re-imagining of Merchant [Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice]. Writing post-Holocaust gives him the chance to exploit the ambivalence in Shakespeare’s text. ‘Who is the hero of this play and who is the villain?’ Jacobson said when the book was announced.”
–Preti Taneja, in an article for The Conversation about censoring Shakespeare
What Ms. Taneja means, I’m pretty sure, is ambiguity, not ambivalence. A person is “ambivalent,” but a text like Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which Taneja is discussing in the quotation above, is “ambiguous.” An ambiguous text might produce ambivalence in the reader or audience, and, to be sure, Shakespeare’s play, fraught with anti-Semitic possibility, does just that. If the text is any indication, moreover, its author was also ambivalent about his characters and several issues they encounter in the course of the play. But a text has no feeling and therefore no capacity for ambivalence.
In something of an inversion of this same principle, the word dubious is often used to describe a person when, in fact, the right word would be doubtful. Properly speaking, a person can’t be “dubious,” only a problem or some non-human entity can. Steinbeck’s novel In Dubious Battle is a good illustration. Steinbeck himself, however, was “doubtful” about the battle.
More subtle are the uses of come and go and bring and take. I see these words confused more often than not; journalists and even very accomplished writers seem to have abandoned concern over which is which. Still, an imprecise usage grates on me and probably on others, as well. Choosing the right one depends upon one’s physical location. If I’m at place A, and I’m going to a dinner party at place B, I’m going to take a casserole from A to B. But if I’m the host at place B, I’m going to ask you to bring a casserole from A to B, where I am. Similarly, if I’m at place A, I’ll go to place B. If I’m at place B and you’re at place A, I’m going to ask you to come to where I am, place B. Here’s a sentence in which you can hear just how wrong the wrong word sounds: “I’m coming to the movies tonight in town,” rather than “I’m going to the movies tonight in town.” But if I’m talking with someone who might accompany me, I might ask, “Are you coming with me to the movies in town tonight?” The person I’m asking to accompany me is physically located near me, and we’re going together to a place farther away.
Despite such explanations, one is never one-hundred-percent sure about whether one is coming or going.