Don’t Be Ambiguous
In our daily conversations, whenever we sense doubt or confusion in the listener’s mind we can always explain our meaning. Usually we say, “In other words…” or “What I’m trying to say is…” or “Let me draw you a picture.” In writing there’s no opportunity to explain ourselves. Your readers either understand you or they don’t. It’s all or nothing, and the odds are against you, so you need to be aware of ambiguous sentences. The problem is that sometimes we don’t see the possibility for confusion or interpretation because to us all is clear. So we may write:
The cost of the printer only was Rs. 5,000.
At first glance you may see little problem with this sentence. However, it can be interpreted in two ways: Are you saying that the printer alone, exclusive of all other equipment, cost Rs.5,000 or that the price of the printer was Rs. 5,000.? Whichever thought you want to express, the sentence must be rewritten to express either:
The printer cost only Rs. 5,000.
The cost of only the printer was Rs. 5,000.
In speech, meaning is conveyed through the vocal emphasis we would place on the word only but in writing the reader can’t hear the distinction. Even though the intended meaning of each sentence may be clear to us, we often have to ask ourselves if any sentence is prone to interpretation. If so, revise the sentence to remove that possibility. Sometimes the task may prove daunting, as in this sentence:
Shweta told Brinda her handbag has been stolen.
Whose handbag was stolen? Can you really tell? When you suspect a sentence may be inclined to expressing a dual meaning, ask two people to read it and offer an opinion. If they differ or ask, “Is this what you’re trying to say?” it’s time to rewrite the sentence by beginning in your own mind with these words: “What I’m really trying to say here is….”
To Generalise is to Err and Confuse
Generalisations are comparable to stereotypes. There may be some small truth inherent, but that is not enough to present the full picture. In fact, upon closer examination, we often discover that all stereotypes present distorted images of people and events. The success of your writing can be measured by your ability to progress from the general to the specific and from the abstract and vague to the concrete. Generalisations, such as those presented in this sentence, can only lead to confusion for your reader:
A majority of our customers preferred the new software.
Just how large was that majority? Fifty-three percent? Seventy-five percent? Ninety percent? Also, which new software do they prefer? The writer who sent this sentence to his manager no doubt received one back, asking these questions.
In everyday conversations we often use fragment sentences to convey our thoughts. If someone in our office asks, “Where are you going?” we might answer, “To get coffee” or “Downstairs” or “Mary’s office.” In most instances, we have little trouble understanding fragmentary speech. Also, in speech we don’t pronounce punctuation marks. Rather, our pauses or rhythms of expressions provide the commas and periods. When we’re excited or in a rush our ideas are expressed through runaway sentences, long interconnected thoughts that often flow breathlessly. Writing, unfortunately, does not welcome any of these manners of communication. Writing, or rather your reader, insists upon complete thoughts.
Fiction writers may use fragments for atmospheric or realistic effect. In real life no one speaks in complete, perfectly constructed sentences. Still, you would be wise to avoid the following given the likelihood that your reader does not feel inclined to granting you poetic license.
Fragment sentences lack a subject, verb, or phrase to complete a thought.
A fine idea. (no subject or verb)
Your suggestion is a fine idea.
Bob been promoted to supervisor. (Missing helping verb)
Bob has been promoted to supervisor.
While you were out.(missing phrase)
While you were out, your sister called.
Comma Splice Sentences
Comma splices occur when two independent complete sentences are joined by a comma and not followed by a conjunction (and, or, but, for, so, nor, yet) rather than a semicolon or separated by a period.
Smita is busy writing a report this morning, after lunch, she can meet with you.
Smita is busy writing a report this morning, but after lunch, she is can meet with you. (Add a conjunction after the comma.)
Alexis is busy writing a report this morning. After lunch, she can meet with you.
(Place a period between the sentences.)
Run-on sentences lack any punctuation and are among the most troublesome of all, because your reader has no idea where ideas begin and end.
We have decided that our policies and procedures are confusing. Therefore, we have decided to revise them. We need your input regarding what you find confusing. Please let us know.
Overuse of the Word “And”
Either place periods between the sentences or rewrite them to condense the information.
Judy is a very fine organiser and she has a very good sense of time management and her ability to relate to people is a definite talent and I believe she is the person who will best represent our organisation at the conference next month.
Judy is a very fine organiser with a very good sense of time management. Because her ability to relate to people is a definite talent, I believe she is the person who will best represent our organisation at the conference next month.
Double Negatives to Prevent Confusing Your Readers
It is not unwise of Sandy to decide not to change the supervisor’s observations.
Ordering the new software is not unnecessary.
Sandy is wise to avoid challenging the supervisor’s observations.
Ordering the new software is necessary.
Separating Related Parts of Compound Verbs
Charlie decided, even though Connie objected, to go bowling instead of to the opera.
Even though Connie objected, Charlie decided to go to bowling instead of to the opera.
Dangling Participles (Sentences Beginning With an “-ing” phrase)
Drinking a cup of tea, the doorbell rang.
I was drinking a cup of tea when the doorbell rang.
Infinitive Phrases (Sentences Beginning With “To…”)
To return the package quickly, a small fee was charged.
The shipper charged a small fee to return the package quickly.