The Language Perfectionist: Always Avoid Ambiguity

Some problems with the written word don’t qualify as formal mistakes but rather are issues of style and expression. That doesn’t make them any less serious.

One of these problems is the sentence so poorly worded that it’s ambiguous and confusing. It forces the reader to stop and wonder: What is the writer trying to say? What does he mean?

Here are a few examples I caught recently in major newspapers:

  • “Although Mr. Bush has given several speeches since leaving office… this is the first event where he has invited reporters to announce a new venture.”Of course, the former president didn’t suggest to reporters that they announce their own new venture. Better: “… this is the first event where he announced a new venture to invited reporters.”
  • “But while it may seem to be bad form, in some cases, it is legal for a credit-card issuer to close an active account….”It’s not the “bad form” that “in some cases” refers to, but rather the legality of the account terminations. Omitting the comma after “cases” would clarify matters.
  • “Our survey of consumers in five large country markets found a range of reasons why people opt for counterfeits.”Are we talking about rural flea markets that aren’t small? Nope. A subsequent paragraph makes it clear that the reference is to Brazil, Russia, India, China, and America. The problem can be fixed via hyphenation: “large-country markets.”
[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.