Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

"Did You Mean...?": When Ambiguity Foils Communication

In day-to-day discourse, we don't usually encounter terms that are genuinely problematic. If someone throws something at us that's clearly wrong, like calvary for cavalry, we still get it. If my dialect is "She took a cake to the party," whereas yours is "She brought a cake to the party," I'll still understand you.

There are expressions people like to argue about, like decimate and could care less, but these don't cause genuine confusion, and it would be a rare case indeed where you'd have to stop someone who just said beg the question and ask "Did you mean the rhetorical fallacy or just raise the question?" Context generally sorts these things out for us enough that we can just move along.

But sometimes context doesn't help, and neither does the dictionary. Sometimes, in fact, you do have to stop and ask "Did you mean ...?"

Probably the classic example is semi- versus bi-. You meet someone who tells you that they take a semi-annual trip to Hawaii. Now, you might know that per the dictionary definition, your lucky interlocutor has just told you that she goes to the tropics twice a year. But confusion between semi- and bi- is so widespread that maybe the traveler actually meant that she goes every other year. In the end, there's only going to be one way to find out for certain.

I think about this every time I see a flyer for the big sales that many retailers have twice a year; some stores call it their half-yearly sale, others their semi-annual sale. This ultimately left one poor shopper perplexed enough that she posted a plaintive question on an Internet forum: "I got a postcard today for the 'Half-Yearly Sale for women and kids.' Is this different from the Semi-Annual?"

At work recently, we got a message that asked us to log off from a particular computer so it could be upgraded. "We're going to start the installation process presently," the email noted. We were in the midst of one of our usual scrambles and being offline was a serious impediment; how presently was presently, exactly? Did they mean presently as in "soon" or presently as in "now"?

The dictionary lists both meanings. In the end, one of us had to send a reply and ask for a slightly more precise schedule. (Turned out they meant "now," and we made a friendly agreement that they would not use presently in future communications.)

Presently is not the only time interval that's ambiguous. Suppose that on a Thursday morning you're talking to a friend who says he's going camping "next weekend." Can you definitively, confidently say — without asking — that he meant two days hence and not nine days hence?

Ditto last. Imagine that it's October; a colleague of yours tells you that "last summer" she took a long bike trip. Uh... sorry, did you mean the summer that just ended, or the one before?

Both next and last are interesting here because the confusion factor is dynamic. If I say "last summer" in mid-May, probably I mean the previous year. But when does last go from "the time before the most recent one" to "the immediately preceding one"? For last summer, does that change occur in December? February? On June 21? On what day of the week does last weekend start to refer to the period within the last seven days? Once again, if these terms come up, the only way to know for sure is going to be to stop and ask.

For last, there's the additional ambiguity between "most recent" and "final." If you're talking about a TV series and someone tells you, "In the last episode, you find out it's all a dream," you might know which last was intended. But it's not guaranteed.

Another example is the word replica. An article I read recently said that "there are three replicas of the data." Did they mean that there was one original plus three additional versions? Or did they mean three versions total? A similar ambiguity exists for copies: "We have three copies of the manuscript." Or duplicates: "We keep two duplicates available at all times." In each case, you can argue an interpretation one way or the other, and perhaps in certain contexts there's no real ambiguity. But often there is, and to be certain, you have to ask.

At least when you're talking with someone, you do actually have the opportunity to stop them and get clarification. If you're writing, you don't have this chance. In that case, you're left with the standard editorial advice for tricky situations: "Avoid." Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl, notes that most style guides recommend against using terms like semiweekly and sticking with twice-yearly or twice a year. Similar advice is dispensed for the bi- prefix and presently.  And if you find yourself in a copies/replicas/duplicates or next/last situation, you'd be wise to anticipate confusion there, too. Because you really don't want your readers to sit and wonder "Did they mean...?"


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Mike Pope has been a technical writer and editor for nearly 30 years. He has worked at several software companies, including Microsoft, and currently works in Amazon's cloud computing division. You can read more at Mike's Web Log and Evolving English II. Click here to read more articles by Mike Pope.

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Comments from our users:

Monday January 2nd 2012, 10:38 AM
Comment by: Augustine R. (Mc Farland, WI)
As a chemistry teacher, I find that kids will use "it" indiscriminately. For example, in a gas laws experiment where pressure, temperature and volume can change, I often get "it expanded" or "it got hotter". In the former example do the kids mean "the volume increased" or do they mean "the pressure increased"? One is correct and the other is incorrect. In the latter example, one can assume that they are referring to temperature, but I still insist on clarification. I have resorted to insisting (somewhat facetiously) that "it" can never be used in describing a subject in a chemical lab writeup.
Monday January 2nd 2012, 11:47 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
What about bi-sexual? Does that mean I have sex once every two years? Semi-sexual doesn't sound like much fun, no matter what it means.
Monday January 2nd 2012, 6:36 PM
Comment by: Ginny A. (Tujunga, CA)
Highway signs: "next exit" sometimes means "the one after this immediately visable exit"and also may mean "this coming up right away exit." I think in California it may vary from county to county. In any case, "next" is unreliable information for exits.
Monday January 2nd 2012, 9:58 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
Thank you Mike; I found your essay highly amusing. There are so many ambiguities I wouldn't know where to start
Wednesday January 4th 2012, 9:32 AM
Comment by: Daniel S. (Bristol United Kingdom)
Great article Mike. When I was a kid there was a billboard advert for cat food with a picture of a dog saying "the last thing I wanted to be was a cat until XXXX cat food was created". I couldn't get it out of my head that the previous thing the dog wanted to be was a cat, not that he never wanted to be a cat at all. This puts a whole new spin on the advert. Obviously, I was being stupid but I was a very young kid! And if you remove the commercial element, there is ambiguity there.
Wednesday January 4th 2012, 9:44 PM
Comment by: Maija P.
What about "This past summer" or "the summer before this past summer"? I have always heard and said "this coming Monday" to set it apart from "next Monday", which belongs in the succeeding week

Ginny A., you said it so well! When is "next"?

I had a 3rd grade teacher who always instructed us to write our names on the first line of the paper. I knew that there was a "top line", so I presumed the first line followed the top line.

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