Fruit Flies Like a Banana: Writing Unambiguously

In my last article, I wrote about the importance of testing your words on your target audience. I said ambiguity had a way of creeping into your writing without your noticing it.

Here are five of the biggest culprits:

1. Not Providing Enough Context

In a 1997 study by John Morkes and Jakob Nielsen, participants looking at a white paper online were confused by a link at the bottom that said “Next.” They couldn’t tell whether it meant “next chapter,” “next page,” or “next something else.”

Hanging on the wall in my office is a birthday card my mother sent me. I keep it there because it makes me laugh and reminds me to think about ambiguity.

It depicts a porcupine, a goose, and a giraffe barreling down the road in a convertible with the top down. The porcupine is driving. They’re approaching an overpass lower than the top of the giraffe’s head. The goose yells “Duck!” to warn the giraffe, but the giraffe understands “duck” to mean “a relatively small waterfowl with a flat bill and webbed feet.” So instead of ducking, the giraffe says excitedly, “Where?”

Not enough context.

2. Showing Off

Recently, I came across a quote from literary manager and producer Ken Atchity that struck me as excellent advice: “Suspect all your favorite sentences.” Intrigued, I hunted down the author to ask him exactly what he meant.

“Some of the greatest writers,” he told me, “including Virginia Woolf and Dr. Samuel Johnson, warned themselves to begin every editing session by excising their ‘favorite passages.’ Woolf called them her ‘purple passages,’ because they stood out vividly.

“The principle behind this self-discipline is to make sure no part of your writing draws attention to itself; all must serve the whole. Favorite sentences are suspect because they may have originated from other than the story they are supposed to serve: showing off, desire for revenge, or sheer verbal pyrotechnics.”

Bingo. Writing well isn’t about showing off; it’s about “serving the story.” And that’s partly why it’s so difficult. The temptation to show off dogs us at every turn. Wait — let me rephrase that. We writers are often tempted to show off.

But if we want to communicate clearly, we must resist.

3. Not Paying Attention to Syntax and Semantics

Syntax, or word order, often matters a great deal in English. “I read only short stories” doesn’t mean the same thing as “I only read short stories.” “Catalog order” doesn’t mean the same thing as “order catalog.” (In fact, “order catalog” has at least two meanings.)

Because language can have an underlying structure different from its surface structure, syntax can mislead, as the linguist Noam Chomsky demonstrated with this pair of sentences:

John is eager to please.
John is easy to please.

Or as Groucho Marx also demonstrated, but with a touch of humor:

Time flies like an arrow.
Fruit flies like a banana.

Hence, “search options” could mean “search through the options” or “options for searching.”

That’s where testing comes in. It’s the best way to ensure clarity.

4. Not Paying Attention to Punctuation

Consider these pairs of sentences:

Mary claimed John ate the last cookie.
Mary, claimed John, ate the last cookie.

But if we want to communicate clearly, we must resist.
But if we want to communicate, clearly we must resist.

In both pairs, adding or moving one or two commas changes the meaning.

5. Overlooking Error Messages

Recently, I ordered my older son a skateboard helmet online. At the registration page, I carefully filled out the five fields:

    Customer ID
    Verify Password
    Password Question
    Password Answer

But when I clicked “Submit,” I received this message:

“DTWP001E: Net.Data is unable to locate the macro file err_reg.d2w.”


I tried it again. Same message. I played with the fields, trying to discover which one had caused the error, since no field was highlighted. Finally, by process of elimination, I determined that the user name I’d chosen was already taken.

Because the error message was unclear, filling out five fields took nearly 10 minutes instead of 30 seconds.

Error messages are easily overlooked in the rush to launch a web site. And they’re usually not the responsibility of the copywriter, though they should be. Or at least the copywriter should review them to ensure they’re clear and appropriate.

And, yes, error messages should be user-tested.

Next time: writing for the 79 percent of readers who skim — how to organize your text and write concisely.

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Glittering cloud with electric neurons