Know what I mean?

In my last post, we looked at how some words can do double duty as both nouns and verbs. “Bike” can be a thing or an action.

Some words have lots of meanings. A jack is a device for lifting a car or other heavy object. A jack is a playing card. Kids can play a game with jacks. A jack is the little hole where you plug in your earphones. Jack is a person’s name.

Some words can even be their own opposites. “Fast” can mean moving rapidly, or firm and unmoving.

Keep this in mind when you look over something you’ve just written. If someone didn’t already know what you were trying to say, how easy would it be to misinterpret you?

You might think, “Aw, it’s obvious what I mean.”

No, not really. The only thing that’s obvious is what you wrote. I can’t see inside your head. If you write, “We need a jack,” I need more information to know what kind you mean. Context can do that (have you been writing about playing cards or changing a tire?). So can a few extra words. (“We need a jack to fill out a royal flush.”)

Headline writers are especially vulnerable to double meanings, because headlines are written in a kind of shorthand. If the writers aren’t careful, they can create these real examples:

Juvenile court to try shooting defendant (Deseret News)

Robber Holds Up Albert’s Hosiery (Buffalo Evening News)

Aging Expert Joins University Faculty (Atlanta Constitution)

Firebombing Jury Takes Weekend Off (Hartford Courant)

You’ll run into the same challenge with things that need short descriptions and labels. One of my LinkedIn contacts, for example, has a radio show. She describes the show as “Your Connection to Worship Leaders, Bands & Artists.”

Wow, that seemed a bit extreme at first glance. I’m always glad to learn something from leaders, and I like to hear new bands and artists, but I don’t worship them. Then I went to the station’s website. Ah! It’s a Christian radio station. So the show is a place to hear people who lead worship services, not a place to worship leaders. Got it.

Then I looked at the webpage for the show itself. Along with the name of the show are three words: Worship. Music. Connect. Hmmm. Well, I know how to worship and I know how to connect. But how do I music? Wait, maybe they are all nouns. So I can hear about worship, and I can hear some music, and I can hear some “connect” … whatever that is?

Sure, I figured out what she meant in less time than it took to write about figuring it out. But as I said in the last post, you don’t want your readers to have to decode your writing. It diverts their attention from what you are trying to tell them, it takes extra time, and they might get it wrong.

And with that, I’m off. (I mean I’m leaving now. I don’t mean that something about me isn’t quite right.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s