Clarity of expression is the writer’s goal, but what is clear to the writer may not always be clear to the reader. Ambiguity is the enemy of clarity.
ambiguity (noun): the capability of being understood in two or more ways.
ambiguous (adjective): admitting more than one possible interpretation.
nuance (noun): a subtle or slight variation or difference in meaning.
Ambiguity is not always a bad thing in writing. In literature, for example, ambiguity and nuance contribute to the pleasure of the reader who enjoys an intellectual challenge.
In a science text or instruction manual, on the other hand, ambiguity contributes to confusion and error. ESL learners, especially, have difficulty with expressions that can be interpreted in more than one way. Even native speakers are sometimes left wondering about the meaning of a common expression.
“Every other” is one of these expressions.
It can mean “each of several,” as in “The homeless have the same rights as every other citizen” (i.e., all other citizens). Or it can mean “every second one,” as in “Open Mike Every Other Saturday” (i.e., alternating Saturdays).
Most native speakers would have no difficulty interpreting the following uses of “every other”:
Your child will muddle through [a cold] like every other child.
The child’s father has visitation rights every other weekend.
Why is every other politician trying to target Narenda Modi?
Every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle.
Even a native speaker, however, might have to think about the following:
Every teacher in the group was asked to rate every other teacher for general teaching ability and skill in discipline.
Employees will empty large trash bins on Fridays and small wastebaskets every other day.
The writer’s intended audience dictates usage. If the writer’s audience can be expected to include readers of widely differing English comprehension, the use of even such a familiar idiom as “every other” must be scrutinized.
Here are suggested revisions of the examples given above:
Your child will muddle through [a cold] like all other children.
The child’s father has visitation rights on alternating weekends.
Why are other politicians trying to target Narenda Modi?
All particles of matter in the universe attract one another.
Every teacher in the group was asked to rate each of the other teachers for general teaching ability and skill in discipline.
Employees will empty large trash bins on Fridays and small wastebaskets on alternating days.