The Language Perfectionist: Eschew Ambiguity

Here are four passages I encountered in newspapers. Observe how, in each case, poor wording creates an ambiguity that can lead the reader astray.

  • “He found himself wondering how much time he spent doing one of his roommates’ dishes.”

And I found myself wondering why washing a single dish would take so long — until I realized that one referred to the roommate, not to the tableware.

  • “These companies have used the sharp downturn as an opportunity to cull their payrolls for good….”

The phrase for good here means “permanently,” but might be misconstrued as meaning beneficial.

  • “A regulation now in the works will require the operators of printing and photocopying shops [in Tibet]… to take down identifying information about their clients and the specific documents printed or copied….”

The phrase to take down means “record” but also “remove.”

  • “American forces blew up a captured Japanese I-401 aircraft carrier submarine… which was designed during the war to execute air strikes on land from the sea.”

A submarine that operates on land? Once again, bad phrasing made me do a double take until I realized what the writer intended to say.

The lesson: Always review your writing to ensure that nothing is likely to puzzle or mislead the reader.

[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.