3 Ways to Avoid Confusing Your Readers

By Mark Nichol

Word choice, insertion or omission of punctuation, and syntax (arrangement of words and phrases) all affect comprehension. In each of the following sentences, one of these components of sentence construction is the source of ambiguity or confusion. Discussion of each example follows, along with a revision.

1. Our organization has sponsored AIDS/HIV walks across the country.

Across is often used as a synonym for throughout, but here, it prompts the unfortunate misapprehension that the walks are transcontinental in scope. In this case, throughout is a better choice: “Our organization has sponsored AIDS/HIV walks throughout the country.”

Take-away: Remain vigilant about ambiguous wording.

2. These results are not surprising because cyber risks have evolved into a moving target.

This sentence, as written, suggests that the reader, after learning from the second half of the sentence what is not the reason the results are surprising, will read in a subsequent sentence the reason they are. But “cyber risks have evolved into a moving target” is the reason the results are not surprising, which is made clear simply by applying a brief pause to the sentence in the form of a comma preceding the explanation, which renders the explanation a subordinate clause set off from the premise of the sentence (“The results are not surprising”): “These results are not surprising, because cyber risks have evolved into a moving target.”

Better yet, begin the sentence with the explanation, still in the form of a subordinate clause: “Because cyber risks have evolved into a moving target, these results are not surprising.”

Take-away: When a negative statement is followed by an explanation, separate the explanation, a subordinate clause, from the main clause. (A positive statement generally needs no such punctuation, though exceptions exist.)

3. By taking a risk-based approach, such changes can be tailored to fit the company’s specific risk posture.

All too often, writers mistakenly craft sentences in which subordinate clauses placed as introductory phrases are assumed to pertain to the subject of the main clauses when the two elements are only tangentially related. Here, changes are mistakenly said to take a risk-based approach, but an unnamed actor must be persuaded to do so. In most cases, simply revise the subject so that it logically follows the subordinate clause: “By taking a risk-based approach, one can tailor such changes to fit the company’s specific risk posture.”

Take-away: Be alert to dangling participles.

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