As I mentioned in The Secret Weapon of Conversational Copywriting, ambiguity was the issue I resolved most when I edited books.
Ambiguity is everywhere in writing and, like so many other problems, it persists largely because people aren’t aware of it.
My goal today is to make you a little more aware of the ambiguities in everyday language, and I’ll be using a simple four-word example to give you an idea of what I mean.
Two quick notes of preface:
1️⃣ An article on ambiguity is not the place to be ambiguous, so let’s define our terms. Ambiguity is a lack of precision or exactness in words, where the intended meaning of a word or phrase isn’t clear and is therefore open to interpretation.
There are degrees of ambiguity—sometimes the whole picture is a blur, other times it’s just a single whisker out of focus—but either way, an editor will try to make the meaning as sharp and legible as a police mugshot.
2️⃣ Ambiguity is a common and persistent issue because it occurs naturally. For one thing, language itself is slippery; even if we spoke like robots, with all of the tonal difficulties cut out, most of our words would still have multiple meanings each. Plus grammar, syntax, and… you get it.
For another thing, there’s just the natural fact of human egocentrism. Because we experience our own thoughts in an unambiguous way—but only from the inside—we struggle to understand how our expression of those thoughts could be ambiguous from the outside.
Without further ado, today’s four-word example for exploring ambiguity:
“I hit a deer.”
I’m betting that, right away, some combination of images popped into your head. Y’know, things like…
BIG DUMB BEAUTIFUL ANIMAL 🦌
CRUMPLED HOOD 🚘
SHATTERED WINDSHIELD 🌫
Sound about right?
To the extent we’re all picturing (roughly) the same thing, it’s because we’ve all been on the road and we all know the danger. Every single one of us has either hit the deer or felt the fear.
My point is that we don’t often realize how much of our shared language is held up by shared experiences. Communication isn’t just about knowing the words; it’s about knowing the music, too. Sure, all four of the words in the phrase “I hit a deer” are simple and widely known on their own—but our shared understanding of that phrase comes from experience more than it comes from the words themselves.
The proof: we almost certainly imagine a car even though nothing in the phrase “I hit a deer” expressly indicates the involvement of a car.
This is a gap in meaning, and language is riddled with gaps like this—except that (A) we don’t usually stop long enough to notice them and (B) unlike “I hit a deer,” most ambiguous phrases don’t have an understood or “default” meaning throughout the reading audience.
Again, you can’t address ambiguities unless you’re able to notice them in the first place—and you won’t often notice them if you leave your brain on autopilot. You need a way to change your perspective and act like a different sort of reader.
In my own experience, it’s much easier to spot ambiguities if you pretend you’re a Martian who speaks English. In other words, imagine that you know what all of the words mean, but only as the dictionary defines them literally—without any social, cultural, historical, idiomatic, figurative, and/or contextual meaning attached. You’re E.T. with a better version of Google Translate installed in your brain.
The sentence “I hit a deer” seems simple and plain to us humans, but an alien reading it would have SO MANY QUESTIONS.
To name but a few of the Martian’s potential questions, grouped by interpretations of the verb “hit” (the main seat of ambiguity here):
YOUR HAND MIGHT BE INVOLVED 👋
Did you punch the deer in the face? Did you slap the deer like it broke your heart? Did you tap it on the nose like it was a bad deer for chewing your house slippers?
MELEE WEAPONS MIGHT BE INVOLVED 🪓
Did you pistol-whip the deer? Did you grab defensively for a weapon of circumstance, like a wrench from a toolbox, or do you carry a designated deer-hitting weapon such as a warhammer?
RANGED WEAPONS MIGHT BE INVOLVED 🏹
Did you intentionally shoot at the deer and “hit” the deer like you’d “hit” any other target? Or did you hit the deer after aiming for a different target…?
CARS MIGHT BE INVOLVED 🚕
Can humans swing cars like warhammers? Or perhaps do humans use their cars as self-propelled projectiles in the event of impromptu roadside hunting events? (Could humans install fletchings on their cars for improved accuracy?)
Or does your car strike the deer as part of some unfortunate accident?
DRUGS MIGHT BE INVOLVED 💊
Is a “deer” slang for a unit of some intoxicating substance? Could you (hypothetically) “hit” a deer like you “hit” a crack pipe?
LOCATIONS MIGHT BE INVOLVED 📍
Did you pay a short visit to the deer, like you might “hit” the gym or grocery store? Or, while paying the short visit, did you rob (or commit other felonies against) the deer?
the MAFIA MIGHT BE INVOLVED 🐟
Did someone want this deer wearing cement shoes? Do you “whack” deer for people? (Or for other deer?)
A couple final pointers before this gets completely out of hand:
1️⃣ We can’t completely avoid ambiguity, so let’s not overthink things (too much). Perfect standards are paralyzing; if your writing had to be airtight and 100% free of ambiguity, you’d never publish anything. And, frankly, there’s an extent to which writing and reading are held together by momentum, by the mutual desire to keep going forward despite vagaries and other humbugs.
The point of the “English-speaking Martian” exercise is just to help you notice ambiguities so you’re able to keep them under control and keep the fog away from the most important sections of your writing.
2️⃣ Be direct and use simple words. For some reason, people seem to think this advice means “you have to write like a simpleton” and… no.
It is 100% possible to simply say what you mean (and have others understand it) while retaining a sense of style and sophistication.
It just takes practice.