Eschew Ambiguity: Allow only one meaning for everything you write
Whatever else business writing is, it must, first and foremost, be clear. That means that every reader understands a message in the same way. Yet our word choices—and the way we put words together in a sentence—often lead to different interpretations. It’s difficult indeed to totally eliminate ambiguity, but you can reduce confusion significantly by taking these steps.
- Avoid using words that most people find confusing:
~ bi- and semi- In theory, bi- before a root word means “two,” and semi- means “half.” In practice, the prefixes are often interchanged. Avoid them in reference to time. Say “every two years” not “biannually” and “twice a year,” not “semiannually.”
~ and/or Readers may not know which you prefer —both or one—and if so, which one. It’s better to say, “Send a copy of your birth certificate or your passport—or both.”
~ e.g. and i.e. The abbreviations are similar but not the same. e.g. is short for Latin exempli gratia, (for example): Bring warm clothes; e.g., a parka, gloves and scarf. i.e. is short for Latin id est (that is): A liking for primary colors (i.e., red, yellow, blue) is a sign of mental health.
~ literally and figuratively Literally means “actually”—so don’t say there were literally thousands of applicants. for the job if you are speaking figuratively.
~ flammable and inflammable These are synonyms, both meaning “to go up in flames.” Some think inflammable means “not flammable” and could make a serious mistake. To be safe, use flammable.
- Don’t use “Janus words” (words that have two opposite meanings), unless the intended meaning is obvious.*
~ Sanction: to allow/ to ban. If the copying of non-business-related material is sanctioned in your company, is it allowed or banned?
~ Oversight: to pay attention to or oversee/ to fail to pay attention. If you comment on an employee’s oversight, are you referring to the person’s ability to oversee or to carelessness?
~ Unqualified: complete, lacking nothing/ lacking all qualification. When you refer to a candidate’s unqualified preparation for the job, are you referring to sterling credentials—or to the absence of qualifications?
~ Transparent: easily seen/ invisible. If one claims to have a transparent agenda, is it up front or hidden?
~ Downhill: a better direction/ a worse direction. When you say, “It’s all downhill from here,” are you speaking of an improving or declining situation?
*Note on “Janus words”: The face of the Roman god Janus (January) was placed on both sides of the temple gates, thus symbolizing two-facedness.
- Place words close to what they modify to avoid confusing your reader.
~ The manager discussed how to fill the empty bottles with his employees. (Did he discuss the matter with employees or fill bottles with them?)
~ Being in a run-down condition, I bought the furniture for a song. (Does “run-down” refer to the speaker or the furniture?)
~ The man whose foot was broken recently filed a claim. (Was the man’s foot recently broken or did he file a claim recently?)
- Clarify which word in a sentence is being referred to by a pronoun.
~ The manager told her colleague she was working too hard. (Is the manager working too hard—or the colleague?) Try: Discussing her job with a colleague, the manager said she was working too hard.
~ The company concealed its losses, which caused investors to dump the stock. (Did the company dump stock because of the losses or the concealment?) Try: The company concealed its losses, a fact which caused investors to dump the stock.
Clear, unambiguous messages serve you well. Readers grasp them easily and act upon them quickly—and the writer looks good. Make your sentences crystal clear.