Have you ever said something and realised, a nanosecond after the words were out of your mouth, that what you meant to say and what you actually said were two different things?
We’ve all done it, and the results usually range from mild embarrassment to sharing a laugh. There’s not usually too much danger of the misunderstanding escalating, because you’re there to explain, apologise or turn it into a joke as soon as you’ve realised.
But what if you say something you don’t mean in writing? You won’t be there to defuse the situation, and the consequences of your readers taking offence are therefore higher.
It’s not always so easy, though, to recognise that what you’ve just written can be interpreted in a different way. After all, you know what you meant, so why shouldn’t other people? So I’m giving a couple of light-hearted examples to give some ideas about the kinds of issues to look for.
Both these come from the BBC website, but that isn’t meant to imply that the BBC are particularly bad at this. You’d probably find examples on any large website — bbc.co.uk is simply convenient.
Curtains for the Army
“The recently disbanded British Army’s motorcycle display team’s bikes are being sold at auction in Sherborne.”
The British Army has been recently disbanded?
This sentence is very badly composed in general, but the crucial thing is that the modifier (“recently disbanded”) comes immediately before “British Army’s”. In general, modifiers tend to relate to the word or phrase immediately following.
The easiest fix would be “The British Army’s recently disbanded motorcycle display team’s…”, but that would still be an extremely clunky sentence. The sequence of phrases all relating to one another means having to study the sentence before you can be sure what it means. I might write it as:
“Since the British Army’s motorcycle display team recently disbanded, their bikes are being sold at auction in Sherborne.”
“US scientists observed the so-called sea butterfly — actually an aquatic snail — using high-speed video and flow-tracking systems.”
Did you know that aquatic snails were smart enough to use high-speed video and flow-tracking systems?
The problem here is that, whereas languages like Latin would use different forms of “using”, depending on whether it referred to the scientists or the sea butterfly, English relies on word-order, punctuation and sometimes just context.
It would actually be a lot easier without the phrase “actually an aquatic snail”. Adding a comma after “butterfly” would remove all ambiguity, but that’s not possible with the dashes there.
This one’s a fairly easy fix, however:
“US scientists used high-speed video and flow-tracking systems to observe the so-called sea butterfly — actually an aquatic snail.”
Does It Really Matter?
So how much does this really matter? Not too much, if the only result is that your readers get a little laugh — although, even so, it may distract attention from the points you’re actually trying to make.
On the other hand, the misinterpretation could be something the reader takes offence at. You might potentially lose a valuable potential client, but it could be far worse. Suppose, for instance, the misunderstanding left readers with the impression that you’re racist or sexist. You could be left with a bad reputation that spreads across the internet.
To avoid this, read carefully through what you’ve written, trying to switch off any assumption that you know what to expect. Better still, get someone else to read it. If they start chuckling at something you considered serious, you might have a problem.
Alternatively, I can help you. Drop me a line to find out more.