Beware ambiguous words

Evie Minns explores the different ways we can let ambiguity creep into our writing if we are not careful, the impact it can have and how to avoid it.

In the office recently we were discussing the use of ambiguous words, in particular the phrase ‘bi-monthly’. ‘Bi-’ clearly means two, but did the author mean ‘twice a month’ or ‘once every two months’? You might assume the former given that bi-annual exclusively means occurring twice a year. But, in fact, both ‘twice a month’ and ‘every two months’ are correct, depending on the context. It is therefore best to write which you mean explicitly. 

This incident got me thinking about instances of ambiguity in writing more generally. Ambiguous terminology is perhaps particularly troublesome in copywriting as it can make the writing less clear. Furthermore, customers want copy that can be read quickly and easily without having to pause to work out what something means.

Don’t create ambiguous references

Pronouns, for example, can easily become ambiguous when it is unclear to which noun the pronoun is referring. Using ‘they’ without having explicitly identified beforehand who ‘they’ are is a mistake that may seem obvious. But it is an easy one to make if you know who you are talking about but have forgotten to inform your reader! 

Pop goes the weasel word!

Often, however, ambiguity in copywriting or advertising is intentional. A popular example of this is the use of ‘weasel words’.  These are words which sound impressive and factual but are essentially meaningless. The phrase came from the belief that weasels suck the yolks from birds’ eggs, leaving only the empty shell. Similarly, ‘weasel words’ are used to describe statements that have had the life sucked out of them. Their deliberate ambiguity, known as equivocation, allows writers to get away with dubious claims. 

ambiguous words

For example, take the sentence: ‘Our organic, all-natural washing powder will leave your clothes almost spotless’. Here the reader is likely to focus on the word ‘spotless’ and overlook the word ‘almost’. ‘Spotless’ is clearly a desirable quality to include, while the word ‘almost’ cunningly safeguards the company from actually having to make their product deliver spotless results. Used together they make the product sound impressive but are virtually meaningless. ‘Almost spotless’ is a weasel word (well, phrase!). 

To sanction or not to sanction…

Ambiguity can crop up when words have multiple meanings, too. So it is a good idea to be as precise as possible with your definitions. A good example of this is the word ‘sanction’ which can mean to allow or to punish. Often the context determines the meaning. But it’s still a good idea to make sure there is no potential for confusion or misunderstanding.

The fallacy of equivalence

It might be tempting to do a quick thesaurus check to avoid using the same word twice. But be careful because using words that are not quite equivalent as equivalent is another easy way to invite ambiguity into your writing. Again, context will generally determine the clarity of your writing. ‘Mind’ and ‘brain’ may be appropriate synonyms in some contexts (an advert for a headache remedy) but not others (a psychology article). 

Two more writing tips: recognise and understand your own ambiguity

When it comes to ambiguous words, the most important thing is to be aware of when you are using it and why. If it is a deliberate writing choice, ensure the intellectual impact of your writing on the reader achieves its goal and be clear about what that goal is. 

When it comes to accidental ambiguity, the best way to tackle it is to ask someone else to read your writing before you publish it. Their detachment from your thought patterns in creating the writing are more likely to spot a point which is not clear. And getting a second pair of eyes on your work is good practice anyway.

Ambiguous words – an On Point copy editing service

Ambiguity is something we specifically check for in our copy editing service. So If you would like help fine tuning your writing to be as precise as possible, don’t hesitate to give the On Point team a call on 0117 244 0116.

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Huw Bendon

Huw founded On Point Copywriting and leads the team, allocating the resources you need to achieve your goals. He has been copywriting since 2003 on both the client and agency side. Huw gets involved with all aspects of our service delivery with a particular focus on the planning and quality assurance stages.