The black magic of ambiguity in writing

woman preparing christmas table

As a copy editor, I’m very aware that there’s a particular trick of the brain that happens when we write, and it fascinates me. It is this: the descent of a cloud that makes it impossible to see that your meaning is ambiguous. It happens to everyone.

“Let’s eat Grandpa!”

What a great start to a celebratory meal! Or perhaps, by virtue of a comma, Grandpa might even join in the celebrations:

“Let’s eat, Grandpa!”

Once the double meaning is pointed out to the writer by someone else, it’s like the clouds have parted and the sun has shone through. Of course! You can see it, and correct it.

Momentary ambiguity

Sometimes, the ambiguity is momentary, and the meaning becomes clear once the last words of the sentence have been read:

The sisters ate the entire fruit cake and the pavlova
                                                                           … was saved for later.

But let’s make it easy on our readers – they might be reading quickly and not concentrating on each word. Nobody wants to re-read sentences. The sisters may end up being falsely accused of greed!

The sisters ate the entire fruit cake, and the pavlova was saved for later.

Last week I came across this in one of my client’s first drafts (I’ve changed some of the words to protect his privacy):

The goal was to create a research service that offered a superior investing process to private investors and investment advisers.

He meant that the service would be offered to private investors and investment advisers, but this sentence could also be taken to mean that the service being offered was superior to private investors and investment advisers.

It was easily fixed:

The goal was to create a research service that offered private investors and investment advisers a superior investing process.

A fresh eye

Crucially, the “someone else” who can part the clouds for you needs to be an outsider. If your wording is being checked by a person who holds the same viewpoint and understanding as you, he or she will probably see only the same version as you.

The “someone else” must also be a careful reader who cares a lot about your writing, and preferably who is used to looking for such black magic.

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