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Say What You Mean...and Only What You Mean

Clarity, which should be the aim of all your business writing, is an achievement akin to playing a musical instrument: one you must struggle to master. After all, many words have ambiguous meanings, depending upon how we use them and where we put them in the sentence; that is, they are subject to different interpretation by different readers. The result of this ambiguity is confusion, irritation, anxiety—all barriers to successful communication.

Here are the pitfalls you face when you want to convey a clear message—and tips for avoiding them.

Words with a double meaning: Simply put, many words have two meanings. An example is care for. It’s confusing to say: "The father was the one who cared for the child." Does cared for mean loved or took care of? Avoid doubt by revising: "The father was the one who took care of the child." The word may is also confusing and should be avoided because it too has two meanings: "If you arrive after five, the guard may not admit you." Does may not mean can not or might not?

Unclear pronoun references:
Pronouns (he, she, who, this, several, some, each—words that stand for nouns) are empty words that gain meaning when the reader knows what they stand for. If the reference is not obvious, the sentence is confusing: "The chairman was Joseph Brown, father of Sally Brown, who later married Pat Smith.
Who married Pat Smith—Joseph or Sally? Clarify by using a noun in place of a pronoun: "The chairman was Joseph Brown, father of Sally Brown. Sally later married Pat Smith." It’s better to specifically identify people and things too often than not often enough.

Misplacement of "only" and "almost": Put these adverbs as close as possible to the words they modify. Strive in all cases to avoid doubt. Note that the word only in the following sentence is placed between two phrases and could be taken to modify either one: "We sell at retail only in Chicago." One possible meaning: "We sell only at retail in Chicago"; another: "We sell at retail in Chicago only." The two interpretations hinge on the position of the word only. Do not put a modifying word where it can "squint" in two directions.

Equally ambiguous is the following sentence:
"The manager almost studied two hours to prepare for the meeting." According to the way this sentence is written, how much did the manager study? The answer: Not at all. He almost studied! That’s not the same as saying, "The manager studied almost two hours"-- no doubt the intended version.

Misplaced phrase: In this case, the sentence contains a phrase that is actually unrelated to the words around it. Note that the sense of the following sentence is ludicrous: "My client has discussed your proposal to fill the drainage ditch with his partners." The picture that this sentence conjures up—partners buried in a ditch—is unlikely to be the intention of the writer, who instead means, "My client has discussed with his partners your proposal to fill the drainage ditch." Note that you can resolve this ambiguity by putting phrases close to the words they modify and distant from words they don’t.

Truncated sentences: Some sentences, often comparing two elements, lend themselves to being shortened—and in the process, the meaning becomes unclear. Note the ambiguity of this sentence: "I get along with my supervisor better than my co-worker. "Do you get along with your supervisor better than with your co-worker? Or do you get along better with your supervisor than your co-worker does. To eliminate the confusion, extend these sentences to include the words that clarify your meaning.

Precise choice and placement of words and phrases can make a world of difference in the readability of your messages.
If you want to construct clear sentences, use the following strategies:

1. Change words that can be construed to have double meanings.

2. Repeat nouns in order to clarify a reference that could be muddied by a pronoun such as he, she, who, this, or each.

3. Put close to the words they modify single words and phrases. Don’t let these words "squint" in two directions.

4. Extend a truncated sentence by adding the words that complete the intended meaning.

With a bit of practice, your business writing will be as clear as you intended!


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