The Language Perfectionist: Ambiguous Alerts

It’s time once again for a roundup of ambiguities in the media. That is, badly written sentences that puzzle, confuse, or mislead readers because they lack clarity and can be interpreted in more than one way. Check your writing to ensure that you don’t commit this common error. I found the following examples in my routine reading of major newspapers.

  • “As I wrote in my last column, schooling is possible even in Taliban-controlled areas….”It’s true that several important political columnists have recently retired or were reassigned, but not in this case. The word previous would here be clearer than last.
  • “There are so few moving images of Babe Ruth that even Major League Baseball’s monstrous archive contains less than an hour’s worth. The bulk of Ruth footage may, in fact, still be buried in basements or stashed in attics.”The word monstrous can mean large, but its primary meaning is “shockingly hideous or frightful,” which is presumably not the meaning intended by the writer. The archive might be described as enormous, huge, vast, or even Brobdingnagian.
  • “Inundated with demand, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. plans to stop taking orders for shares of Facebook…. The interest, amounting to several billion dollars in an equity offering likely to be no more than $1.5 billion, is a sign of investor fascination….Given the context, I at first interpreted the word interest as the earnings generated by a sum of money, rather than “a state of curiosity or concern about something.” One possible rewrite: “The demand for shares by investors totals several billion dollars, but….”
  • “The populist movement during the adversities of the 1890s spawned the People’s Party, a powerful but short-lived organization based on hostility to corporate malfeasance and the gold standard.”Did the People’s Party love or hate the gold standard? It’s unclear here. Better phrasing: “based on hostility to corporate malfeasance and opposition to the gold standard.”
  • “Consumers are generally more sensitive to changes in prices than to changes in quantity…. Sometimes [manufacturers] add more air to the chips bag or a scoop in the bottom of the peanut butter jar so it looks the same size.”Initially, I envisioned a handy bonus spoon packed in the jar! But the word scoop here refers to a cavity or hollow space in the jar itself that reduces the amount of peanut butter needed to fill it.
[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.]