Thursday, September 30, 2010

Say What You Mean

Our world contains billions upon billions of typos.  (All right, I haven't actually counted them, but I'll bet it's a close estimate.)  We (or most of us, anyway) know that leaving the second 'a' out of "manager" on your resume turns you into a "manger," which is a trough to hold hay and feed for livestock.  (Not quite the experience you wish to highlight.)  Accidentally changing a 'u' to an 'r' leaves you renovating your horse instead of your house.  And leaving that all-important 'l' out of "public" can lead to all sorts of unintended consequences.

But there's more to communication than just spelling words correctly.  You have to be clear in conveying your message.  Whatever you're trying to say will be lost on the reader (or listener) if you muddle the message with extraneous words or awkward syntax.

Here's an example from the web site of a local television station:

     "Police bust a man for making counterfeit cash late Wednesday evening"

It's a pretty simple statement, right?  Take another look.  A literal-minded reader can read this sentence two ways:

     a)  A counterfeiter was arrested Wednesday night.  

     b)  A counterfeiter was making fake money late one Wednesday night and the cops caught him in the act.

This particular story goes on to say the police arrested a man who had counterfeit cash in his possession, not while he was in the process of making the phony bills.  Which interpretation makes more sense now – a or b?

A more accurate, but still slightly awkward, blurb might be:

     "Police bust a man late Wednesday evening for making counterfeit cash"

Better yet is this headline from a competing news outlet:

     "Man arrested with shoebox full of counterfeit bills"

Admittedly, there are better examples of unclear writing out there – this happens to be the one I found today.  But it does illustrate my point:  Muddled writing leads to muddled readers.

And if a reader winds up too often confused about what he or she is reading, that reader will probably go somewhere else for news.

That is the point.

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