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When Brevity Leads to Ambiguity

Here's a set of concise headlines that appeared in the online version of our newspaper:



Everyone 6 months and older should get shot, CDC official says

Did you recognize the unintended misstatement? It needs only the word the to be clear and unmistakable.

Lately I have been seeing tweets and personal updates whose brevity makes them impossible to understand. I skip over them after a brief guess at what the writer meant.

Suggestion: If you tweet or write updates for other social media, make sure your 140 characters make sense. Compose them, go get a cup of coffee or a refreshing drink of water, and then read your words again. Ask yourself whether everyone reading your tweet or update will understand it. If not, revise it to eliminate the confusion.

Have you received brief communications that left you wondering? Feel free to share them if you can do so without mentioning or embarrassing the author.

I am grateful to my friend Margaret for sharing the headlines above. I hope no one got shot!

Syntax Training 

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

8 comments on “When Brevity Leads to Ambiguity”

  • Good point, Lynn.
    I see this all the time, especially in social media. People are in such a hurry that much of what they say is incomprehensible.

  • Hi, Yoav. I wonder why the hurry. Are people thinking “I must get this comment out now before the moment passes!”?

    Thanks for writing.


  • Hi, Cathy. I loved your reference to vanity license plates on cars. (For people outside the U.S., the content of vanity plates is chosen by the car owner but can’t be more than a few letters long. Example: “Gr8d8” would mean “Great date.”)

    I have sat in my car wondering about the meaning of the vanity plate in front of me many times. At least a third of the time I haven’t figured it out, but I sure wanted to!


  • Thanks for the great reminder, Lynn! Although I can’t think of a specific instance, I know I’ve had to reread tweets a few times to get the meaning. I’d also suggest that if posting to social media is a part of your job, you should have a coworker look over your posting to make sure it makes sense. It doesn’t take as long as proofing a document or chapter, and it can help immensely.–Elizabeth

  • I worked in video production for a while where we routinely would say things like – I’ll be shooting the Head of Marketing today. To others in the studio, it would be fine but to some of my co-workers from other parts of the business, it would be quite alarming. πŸ˜‰

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