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.]