confused manThe following three phrases have become my all time favourites in demonstrating clarity in writing for my students of English. While all are grammatically perfect, only one is absolutely clear in its sense, meaning and accuracy of description.

1. The man played the piano with three legs.

2. She loves him.

3. I usually wear a smurtleclop in winter because my bald head and ears get very cold.

It probably didn’t take you long to select phrase 3, even though it has a very strange word as its primary object. The word smurtleclop is a complete invention on my part, but I use it to demonstrate how a well constructed sentence can give sense and meaning accurately. A smurtleclop is obviously something worn on the head to keep warm. It also covers the ears. The reader my also see something made of fur or wool. Perhaps with flaps that can be lowered to cover the ears.

When writing about technical or professional matters for general consumption, I would always recommend this approach for material that contains in house or new technical vocabulary. A well written article can lose the reader in the first paragraph if it contains a word such as smurtleclop without assisting the reader to understand.

The first phrase is a common error. It is simply confusion as to the descriptive element of the subject or object. Use of an adjective would solve the problem. So either a three legged man, or a three legged piano would have been preferable as it clarifies which object is being described. Or, if in fact the man was deformed, the phrase could say that the man with three legs played the piano. Either way, the proximity of the description to the object or subject is the key to understanding.

The second phrase is the most difficult to understand. The reason is that such a short phrase could be interpreted a number of ways. If we heard the phrase spoken we would understand from the intonation used. However, in writing we do not have that ability. I have seen this problem occur many times and in our era of rapid and short textural communication and it can lead to major misunderstandings. The various meanings of this phrase are outlined below.

She loves him.
Stress on she indicates that there is question as to whether it is her who loves him. Maybe it could be someone else who loves him.

She loves him.
Stress on loves indicates that there is question as to whether she loves him. Maybe she just likes him or is just after his money.

She loves him.
Downward stress on loves indicates that there is no question as to whether she loves him. She is in love.

She loves him.
Upward stress on him indicates that there is question as to whether she loves him or someone else in fact.

She loves him.
Downward stress on him indicates that there is no question as to whether she loves him.

Five meanings from three words. I have seen short phrases such as ‘I’ll do it.’, ‘No way.’ and ‘Yes, I know.’ misinterpreted in emails and cause more than a little aggravation. So my advice it to be careful in using these in text.

Although we are encouraged as writers to keep our writing concise, clear and to the point, there are some circumstances where a little thought about word order, or additional information is necessary to ensure our message is delivered clearly.

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Is That Clear?
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One thought on “Is That Clear?

  • 12/12/2009 at 1:07 am
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    The joys of English.
    Isn't it fun.

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