The Language Perfectionist: Ambiguities on the March

In my reading, I continue to spot ambiguously written sentences. Such errors can create miscues that confuse readers and force them to pause, backtrack, and reread in an effort to understand what is really meant. Consider these examples:

  • “I stand behind no one in my enthusiasm and dedication to improving our society and especially our health care.”

Ordinarily, the phrase “stand behind” means support or advocate. But the writer’s meaning is “I’m second to no one….”

  • “That photograph… is sitting on the bookshelf in my living room in an absurdly elegant silver picture frame, a gift from Tiffany’s.”

I momentarily wondered how you get Tiffany to give you gifts! Evidently, however, an unspecified person bought the frame for the writer at that venerable emporium.

  • “After decades of economic reform, many big state-owned companies [in China] face real competition and are expected to operate profitably.”

The meaning here is that the Chinese government now demands profitability from these companies. But the sentence could be construed as a financial or investment forecast.

  • “Poll: Men more accepting of gays than women.”

Most likely, it’s not that men approve of gays more than they approve of women. Better phrasing: “Poll: Men are more accepting of gays than women are.”

[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.]