An Exercise in Ambiguity

By Maeve Maddox

I noticed this headline in the list of breaking news on the Yahoo landing page:

• Sotomayor wins over GOP backers after smooth hearings

At first I read the verb wins as the main verb and over GOP backers as a prepositional phrase. Read that way, the meaning of the headline was that Sotomayor had defeated “GOP backers” in some kind of competition.

But I knew that couldn’t be right. For one thing, Sotomayor wasn’t competing against anyone in the hearings. For another, one doesn’t compete against one’s backers.

So then I decided that what I had in front of me was the phrasal verb win over, meaning “persuade, gain one’s support.”

That made a little more sense, but as far I could recall, Sotomayor went into the hearings without any GOP backers.

I clicked on the confusing headline to read the story. I found my answer in the lead:

WASHINGTON – Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor won her first public pledges of support from Senate Republicans and one prominent GOP opponent, after a smooth performance at her confirmation hearings that has placed her firmly on track to become the high court’s first Latina and the first Democratic-named justice in 15 years.

Finally, I understood what the headline meant. Sotomayor had acquired some backers from among the Republican senators.

The biggest obstacle to understanding for me was the word “backers” used with the phrasal verb “wins over.” I could see how she might “win backers” or “win over some Republicans,” but not how she could “win over backers.” If someone is a “backer” he doesn’t need to be “won over” by the person he’s already backing.

Not every reader would have boggled at this particular headline as I did. Nevertheless, writers need to be aware of the possibilities for ambiguity that exist with the use of phrasal verbs.

Sometimes it is better to replace a phrasal verb with a less ambiguous single verb, especially in writing intended for an audience that includes non-native English speakers.

For example, we can put out the cat and put out a light; take out a girl and take out an enemy.

Alternatives exist for most phrasal verbs. For example:

put the cat outside
extinguish a light
take a girl on a date
kill an enemy

You may not always be able to hit on a suitable alternative, but it’s something to consider when revising a manuscript for clarity.

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8 Responses to “An Exercise in Ambiguity”

  • Randell

    How would you rephrase the headline?

  • T. Grillo

    Well said, Maeve. Thank you.

  • Terry Kaufman

    I totally agree with you!

    I have been following your blog for three months and I find it to be informative and practical.

    This particular post is superb. It demonstrates the need for clarity and clear English when you communicate with non-native English speakers.

    I am an English as a Foreign Language trainer and a consultant for native speakers who communicate with non-native speakers.

    In the corporate world, I see the difficulty non-native speakers have when they struggle to understand an E-mail message. They make an enormous effort to “decrypt” phrasal verbs, colloquialisms, and jargon. And the time it takes them to do so is staggering!

    You are right in saying that alternatives and synonyms are important to use. It is also vital to consider your “audience”.

    I like to tell people: “Always suppose that people do not understand you, because you will make a constant effort to be understood.”

    Thanks for the great post!

  • Craig

    Thanks, Maeve! Just for the sake of clarity and correct conjugation, I try to avoid phrasal verbs. As you noticed, they’re easily misunderstood.

  • b2j2

    Headlines are often (maybe almost always) written by someone other than the reporter. Sometimes one might wonder if the headline writer read the article.

    I’ve had some success in suggesting a short description.

  • cmdweb

    Hence the use of Simplified Technical English, a standard used by many technical writers particularly in the aero industry. It limits the words that can be used and the way they can be used to avoid just such ambiguities, especially useful for non-native English speakers.
    In terms of ambiguities, it’s radio newsreaders that I find are the most ambiguous these days.

  • PreciseEdit

    This headline provides a good example of why it is important to read what you write from the perspective of the audience. Intended meanings are rarely ambiguous to the writer.

  • Jon

    “I clicked on the confusing headline to read the story. I found my answer in the lead”

    Given that the headline is intended to make you read further, I think it worked in this case.

    It’s a ‘trick’ employed by the BBC News website fairly frequently – usually a nicely ambiguous headline that suggests a story far more interesting than is actually the case.

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