Ambiguity in Business Writing

by Craig Shrives

How To Remove Ambiguity from Business Writing

Ambiguity in a business document is a serious failing. It can bring a process to grinding halt as clarification is sought, or it can undermine a retrospective investigation. When creating a business document, be aware that ambiguity is best removed by proofreaders. The writer of a text is usually the worst person to spot any ambiguities.

Ambiguity Is a Serious Failing

If using redundant words is shoplifting a bag of crisps, then inserting ambiguity is holding up the till with sawn-off shotgun. It's a far worse crime. Look at this sentence:
  • The extremists will develop their plans to attack in the next two days.
Now, imagine you're in charge of defending a facility against the extremists. You'd be on the phone quickly to the person who wrote that report asking what it meant. Does it mean the planning will take place over the next two days, or does it mean the attack will take place over the next two days? That's a pretty important distinction if you're the one responsible for doubling the guard force.

Ambiguous writing will show your readers that you're not a clear thinker, and it will confuse and annoy them. Here are some more examples of ambiguous sentences:
  • The policeman shot a terrorist with a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
  • Cycling uphill quickly strengthens your legs.
  • We need a French and German teacher.
  • I await your comments on Facebook.
  • Her sister gave her cat food.

Beware Author Blindness

Because a writer knows what they want say, they are usually the worst people to spot ambiguous words. For example, when the writer wrote "The policeman shot a terrorist with a Kalashnikov", they imagined a terrorist holding a Kalashnikov. They didn't for one second think the policeman could be the one with a Kalashnikov. However, to the reader, it's ambiguous. Without context, the reader would have no idea who was holding the Kalashnikov. The writer's "mind video" of the incident ensures they fail to see the ambiguity. This is often called "author blindness."

Author blindness also affects the writer's ability to see typos. Knowing what the text is supposed to say, the writer's brain fails to register what it actually says. I always omit the word "be" for some reason. I only tend to spot this error the next day if I'm re-reading what I've written or if a proofreader points it out. The bottom line is this: there's a fair chance you won't spot anything ambiguous you've written, and you're likely to miss an uncomfortably high percentage of your own typos.

You might be surprised at your brain's ability to cope with jumbled or missing letters and words. It's trying to do you a favour, but when it comes to proofreading it's not. You'll probably have seen something like this before, but it's still useful to highlight how good your brain is at "helping" you:
  • Dno't tsrut yuorslef to sopt mesktais in yuor wrinitg. Yuor barin has the ablitiy to see waht was maent to be wtriten.
If it's an important piece of business writing, get it proofread. Proofreaders rarely do you a disservice.
But don't worry. There is at least one great grammar checker out there. It's called the "Send" button. As soon as you send something, your typos will leap off the screen at you. Unfortunately, by the time it's worked its "magic," you'll be wishing you'd had your work proofread. So, do worry. Use a proofreader.

Here's a tip. Ask your proofreaders to annotate their markings with:
  • "1" to express a minor concern (but the writing is still good to go).
  • "2" to suggest a rewrite before sending (but the writing is still adequate).
  • "3" to highlight something that definitely needs changing; i.e., typos, grammar errors, formatting errors, factual errors, ambiguity, redundancy, or just very poor wording.
Armed with these options, your proofreaders will find the process much easier because you've given them a way to express opinion without having to decide whether each observation is a reportable error. They'll do a more thorough job for you, I promise.

If you are routinely the signatory of texts written by others, there's an added benefit to this method of proofreading. It will help your writers "get in your head" more quickly, and they'll be writing in your preferred style sooner, making the whole letter-drafting process more efficient. Communicating your amendments downwards (i.e., to your team) is a great investment. For example, you can either constantly delete the word "that" from your drafters' letters or you can show them once that you deleted the word "that" nearly every time they used it.

Format, Word Choice, and Grammar

The effectiveness of your document will also be determined by the following:

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