The Language Perfectionist: An Army of Ambiguities

Ambiguous sentences can be unintentionally amusing, though they do no favors for readers, who are likely to be miscued and confused. Here’s a new batch, all of which I spotted recently in major newspapers:

  • “Huge budget shortfalls are prompting a handful of states to begin discussing a once unthinkable scenario: dropping out of the Medicaid insurance program for the poor. Elected and appointed officials in nearly a half-dozen states… have publicly thrown out the idea.”

The officials are presumably considering the idea, not discarding it.

  • “Celebration’s [the Disney planned community in Florida] initial design of a downtown core to emphasize walking over cars and friendliness over isolation started to disappear even before Disney ceded control.”

I don’t know about you, but at first glance, I interpreted “walking over cars” as an ingenious Disney scheme to route automobile traffic underground, leaving the streets to pedestrians.

  • TV listing: “11 A.M. (Fox Business Network) The War on Business Week”

Again, I was momentarily baffled, assuming that a venerable magazine was under attack, perhaps by online competitors. Nope. It was a week-long series defending capitalism.

  • List of signals economists watch: “Indicator: Diesel-fuel sales. Used to forecast: Industrial production.”

“Used to forecast” could be construed as “It was once, but not now.”

  • Headline: “Thai Leader Says Polls Will Follow ‘Peace,’ ‘Stability'”

I suspect that the frequent use of the word polls for elections is a journalistic convention that predates pollsters such as Gallup and Rasmussen. But because opinion polling is now ubiquitous, it would be less confusing if editors used elections to refer to situations in which candidates are running for office. Alternatively, because editors favor brevity in headlines, they could say votes.

[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.]