RedPen Editing

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Ambiguity occurs when the words you choose can be understood in more than one way, and the reader cannot be sure which is the correct way – the way you intended.

Clumsily constructed sentences can lead to ambiguity, but even simple sentences can be read more than one way:

They are cooking apples.

To what does the pronoun ‘they’ refer? Is the word ‘cooking’ a verb or an adjective? If you replace the pronoun with a noun phrase, all is clear!

  • Verb: Janet and John are cooking apples. 
  • Adjective: Those apples are cooking apples.

Here’s another example.

We saw her duck.

The word ‘duck’ can be a noun (a type of bird often served á la orange) or a verb (to make a downwards movement).

Within the context of your piece, the meaning should be clear, but it’s best to avoid such phrasing. For a reader, the words may conjure an alternative image and this could have an adverse impact on their reading experience – or they may smile … and that may have been intentional on your part. Indeed, jokes depend on ambiguity in the run up to the punch line.

John kissed his wife; so did Jack.

Who did Jack kiss? His wife, or John’s wife?

When a sentence has several parts to it, the order in which information is presented can create ambiguity.

Jane saw the skier on the mountain with a telescope.

What did Jane see? Who had the telescope? This rearrangement provides a clearer understanding of what is happening.

Through the lens of her telescope, Jane saw the skier on the mountain.

Tracking down – and fixing – these ambiguities requires an alternative way of thinking. You know what you meant. Did you choose words, and present them, in a way which conveyed that meaning to your reader?

This is one instance where having others read your piece can prove valuable. Your beta readers won’t know what you intended; if your words confuse them, you’ll need to address the ambiguity issue.