Ambiguity in art can be a powerful and inspiring tool. For example, I love Chet Baker’s rendition of “My Funny Valentine” because of its ambiguity. There’s a sweet, yet blue, mood that runs throughout the song — it invites everyone to project their own experience on the intimacy. The result is amazing.
But, ambiguity in writing? Not amazing if you want to control the message your reader receives.
Identifying and Removing Ambiguity in Writing
When you’re writing for a business audience, clarity trumps creativity. Above all, you need to ensure your reader will understand your message. Confusion or lack of information can cause potential clients to disengage with your content.
As an editor, when I read ambiguous content, I immediately stop and work through a basic checklist for writing the clearest sentence possible. Answer the questions below to analyze your writing on a deeper level and root out any ambiguity.
• Do any of the words have more than one meaning?
Obviously, some words have more than one meaning, but you can’t assume your audience will use your meaning. For example, if someone gives an address, make sure your audience knows whether you’re referring to a speech or a street number.
Ambiguous: The CEO sanctioned the analyst’s report.
Did the CEO approve or penalize the report?
Clear: The CEO approved the analyst’s report. OR The committee penalized the report.
Ambiguous: Our report oversight was noteworthy.
Did we make a big mistake on the report or do a great job overseeing it?
Clear: Describe the nature of the oversight. OR Our team did a noteworthy job overseeing the report.
• Are there any dangling modifiers?
Dangling modifiers usually show up at the beginning of a sentence, separated by a comma. They can cause serious ambiguity because they often don’t identify the subject in a sentence.
Ambiguous: While creating your estate plan, you’ll feel cared for by our team.
Who is writing the will? The team or the client?
Clear: You’ll feel cared for as we plan your estate.
Ambiguous: Lying on the floor, the lawyer noticed the missing files.
Was the lawyer lying on the floor when she noticed the files?
Clear: The lawyer noticed the missing files lying on the floor.
• Are the pronouns placed logically?
Placing pronouns too close to other nouns can cause ambiguity. Your reader may not understand what you’re referencing and grow confused and frustrated. The examples below show how pronoun placement can change the meaning of your content:
Ambiguous: Some analysts are using corporate earnings to calm investor worries. They need a more detailed picture of the economy.
Who needs more details? The analysts or the investors?
Clear: Analysts are calming investor worries by providing them with a detailed picture of the economy, including corporate earnings.
Ambiguous: The buyer gave the manager her annual report.
Whose annual report are you discussing, the buyer’s or the manager’s?
Clear: The buyer gave her annual report to the manager.
Identifying and removing ambiguity in your writing will help your audience understand your content and absorb the message. And, importantly, clearing up ambiguity shows your readers you value their time and attention.
In today’s fast-paced culture, you may only have one chance to reach someone. If ambiguity bogs down your writing, you can miss your opportunity to connect.