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.]