“There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words.” —Thomas Reid
Today’s business content is replete with words — and reaching your audiences can seem like a jigsaw puzzle. While your content’s structure matters (like optimizing for mobile), one of the best ways to improve readability is to edit out words that lead to ambiguity.
Why care about ambiguous messages? As we read, we rely on language to have clarity and transparency, so that we can understand intent. And as Reid highlighted, when you allow ambiguity to create vague, confusing messages, you hurt your readers’ abilities to learn and grow from what they read.
As you refine your own messaging, let’s look at two ways you can provide readers with better specificity, so you improve your communications’ clarity and successfully connect.
1. Be careful with words that have multiple meanings.
Ambiguous phrasing often emerges in business communications, because you use a word with multiple definitions (called polysemous words) within unclear context. Reading ambiguous phrases creates uncertainty and anxiety in our brains instead of trust. And if you’re trying to encourage your readers to act, that eroded trust can also erode their relationship with your brand.
You can avoid confusion by fixing polysemous wording. As you do, be sure to also establish a clear relationship within how each word connects with another, so that readers won’t miss your meaning. By doing so, you strengthen your content’s intent.
One simple example of ambiguous wording is:
I saw a tree on a hill with a telescope.
Here, saw is a polysemous word with more than one meaning. Without proper context, or less ambiguous wording, this sentence can have multiple takeaways:
- I have seen, through my telescope, a tree on a hill.
- I can use a telescope to cut a tree that is on a hill.
- I’m on a hill with a telescope, and I am sawing a tree.
While an obvious meaning may emerge, you never want to leave room for assumptions in your writing. In business, you typically need to share clear, solid facts. Below are 10 words in business communications that all have multiple definitions. Depending on your context, you may need to choose clearer wording.
|charge||company credit card expense|
|complete||spell-checked, printed, bound, and on my desk|
|projection||July 31 account balance|
|support||answer participants’ questions after the workshop|
For further reference, you can check out this comprehensive list of words with multiple meanings.
2. Be specific with words that have opposites.
You can also clarify your communications by thoughtfully using words with opposite meanings, called contranyms. Like a word with different definitions, contranyms can confuse readers by also meaning their own opposite. Context is further critical when using contranyms, so readers can receive the word’s intended meaning, based on surrounding verbiage.
For example, here’s an ambiguous sentence that could easily confuse without context:
Because of the agency’s oversight, the company’s behavior was sanctioned.
Two contranyms are in here: 1) oversight and 2) sanctioned. Oversight can mean either to supervise well or to miss completely. Sanction means either to allow or to prohibit. So, did the agency supervise well or miss the mark? Did the company have to cease its action or continue operating?
The key lies in your context and ability to support clarity. If you’re peppering your communications with commonly used contranyms, be sure the relationships you create with words in your sentences are purposeful and help clarify the word’s meaning. Or, replace any contranym with a word that doesn’t have an opposite meaning.
Here are some contranyms to look out for:
|clip||fasten or detach|
|consult||offer advice or obtain advice|
|custom||common practice or special treatment|
|enjoin||impose or prohibit|
|hold up||support or impede|
|left||remained or departed|
|overlook||supervise or neglect|
|presently||now or soon|
|throw out||suggest or dispose of|
|transparent||invisible or obvious|
When clarifying your next message, ask yourself these two questions:
- Are any of my words polysemous or contranyms?
- Am I providing sufficient context to make my message clear?
Taking time to replace ambiguity with clear wording and complete context will make your content easier to grasp. And, making life easier for the employees, customers, and clients you work with is always work worth doing.