Earlier this year, my wife and I took our two-year-old son to see Hey Duggee Live at the theatre. While we were taking our seats, I nodded towards the stage and said, ‘Duggee’s going to be up there in a minute!’
When the show started and the cast appeared, my son pointed towards the ceiling and said, ‘Duggee go up there in a minute!’
The thing is, the ceiling counted as part of “up there”, so what he thought I meant made sense. The misunderstanding happened because my words were too ambiguous for my target audience.
This is worth considering when you’re writing, even if you’re not producing text aimed at toddlers. Is what you’re telling people clear enough for them to understand what you mean? There will be three hour long workshops at the conference. Does that mean there will be three workshops which are each an hour long, or multiple workshops which last three hours?
Now consider the following passage.
Harry and Andy bolted into the safehorse and rammed the door closed. ‘Are you hurt?’ he asked, checking his arm.
‘Not badly,’ Harry replied. ‘What about you?’
Was Andy checking his own arm or Harry’s? We can’t say for sure. Also, did you assume Harry was the one speaking in the first bit of dialogue? It does become clear that it was Andy talking, but the moment of confusion is unnecessary and can break the flow for a reader. And then there’s a typo. The word safehorse should probably be safehouse, but errors like these aren’t always as obvious.
This is why feedback from others can be so beneficial. An outside perspective can help you see where something’s unclear. I keep an eye out for ambiguity when I’m performing developmental editing, but it can crop up when I’m proofreading too. (With examples like three hour workshops, I’d need to add a query: three-hour workshops or three one-hour workshops?)
Has a piece of confusing text ever tripped you up? Or have you had a misunderstanding like the one I had with my son? Get in touch via email or comment below to let me know.