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.]

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.

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