Getting Rid of Ambiguous Sentences

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Ambiguous Sentences

You are familiar with these optical illusions, aren’t you?

You look at the picture and are sure of what you see; you don’t even question it.Then someone else sees something totally different. You swear the person is nuts.  So you shift your eyes, try to refocus, and even turn the picture sideways.  Then, any without warning, something in your brain clicks, and you suddenly can see the other image.  Take these for examples:

Is this a picture of two faces looking at each other?  Or is it a picture of a goblet?
Is this an elephant?  Or is it a picture of a dog, cat and chimp?
Is this a man looking to the right?  Or perhaps it’s a man looking straight at you from behind a jagged wall.
Ambiguous man looking right

It’s fun to “see” that there are different ways to perceive visual depictions. I love to go to just to browse all the different pictures just to prove to myself that I can alter my initial perceptions.

Did you realize that your sentences can do the same thing?

These are not nearly as fun.  A poorly organized sentence can also produce different perceptions. Take these as examples:

Subzero temperatures  freeze cars in Fargo.
Is this referring to the subzero temperatures in Fargo or the cars in Fargo?
In bad weather, people who take the BUS to work sometimes can expect to be late.

Is this referring to the people who sometimes to the bus to work?  Or is it saying that bus riders are sometimes late for work?

Mary said yesterday she was sick.

Did Mary make the statement yesterday, or was it yesterday when she was sick.

Reading these sentences as stand-alone examples may be fun just like viewing the visual illusions above. But what if this ambiguity is in your writing?   What if you have something very important to get across to your reader? Are you willing to let your readers to make up their own minds on what message is being conveyed?

“If it can be misunderstood, it will be.”

There are a number of specific names for the mixed up sentences above.  For the sake of brevity, let’s group them all into one category: ambiguous sentences. Ambiguous sentences are vague or confusing, and they are open for possible misinterpretation. As a writer, you want to decide the meaning being conveyed by your words.  It’s your responsivity to leave little room for possible misinterpretation. As one of the many derivatives of Murphy’s Law reminds us, “If it can be misunderstood, it will be.”

Methods to Reduce Ambiguous Sentences

So what can we do to eliminate ambiguous sentences.  Unfortunately, there is not a perfect cure.  So you do the best that you can.  Perhaps using the recommendations below will help you increase your chances.

Recommendation 1:   First and foremost, study up on proper sentence construction. Practice identifying misplaced modifiers, unclear pronoun references, and incorrect punctuation in material.

Recommendation 2:    Reread your material.  In my memories of 5th grade Language Arts, old Mrs. Ramsey used to pound this into our heads.  “Reread your material.” This works some. But as with the pictures above, you often can’t see the other perspective until someone else points it out to you. I can read my own sentences over and over.  Like with the pictures, I can shift try to refocus, turn the pages sideways and never notice any ambiguity.  While they make perfect sense just as I wrote them, I could have a definite problem with interpretation

Recommendation 3:  Walk away from it.  Fast forward a few grades, a composition instructor taught me to put my writing away for at least 24 hours before rereading it. I tried this.   Predictably, the illogical sentence structure was often more noticeable when I reread it later.  I can catch several poorly written sentences this way. But since Recommendation 4 frequently finds additional  undetected ambiguities, I have to acknowledge that Recommendation 3 is not the perfect cure.

Recommendation 4: Ask someone else to read your material. Again, using the above optical illusions as examples, sometimes no matter how many times I reread my material, it still sounds just like I intended. But give it to someone else to read, a completely different set of eyes with a completely different focus, and they will catch plenty that I missed.

Recommendation 5: Repeat solution 4 with someone new.

Solution 6: Solution 6 is not solution at all. Even though ourt goal is to eliminate it, solution 6 simply acknowledges that sometimes ambiguous sentences sneak through. I’ve read enough published material to know that  the most expert writers using the most expert editors still have sentences that can be misinterpreted.

So let’s try one more example sentence:

I never painted anyone nude.

I wonder what I meant by that.


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