Avoiding Ambiguity

It takes a long time to become a great academic writer. But there are a number of key writing strategies you can use to begin improving your writing immediately.

Avoiding ambiguity is one of these valuable strategies. Writing is ambiguous if it has more than one possible interpretation. This possibility of different understandings of what you’ve written means your writing is unclear. And unclear writing is bad writing; the whole point of academic writing is to present ideas as clearly as possible.

Here’s a simple example of ambiguity: Fred went shopping with John. He bought a new coat.

It’s easy to see, right? It’s unclear who the word “he” in the second sentence refers to. It could be Fred or John.

Here’s a slightly trickier example: He examined many studies of African economies and found them to be severely flawed.

Can you see the ambiguity? We don’t know what was flawed. Was it the African economies or the studies of African economies? This sentence would be very frustrating for readers, because without understanding this sentence they would worry that they’re not understanding the rest of the article. Of course they could perhaps figure out the meaning based on the context of the paragraph, but you don’t want your readers to have to search for clues about your meaning. They’re likely instead just to stop reading.

Here’s another ambiguity: I was studying international security in Southeast Asia.

This one actually appeared in a first draft of something I wrote. The ambiguity is subtle in this one. But notice that this sentence could be the answer to two different inquiries.

First, one might ask, “What were you studying?”

You might respond, “I was studying [the topic] international security in Southeast Asia.” In other words, you were studying about how Southeast Asian nations try amongst themselves (internationally) to maintain security. Note that you could have been studying this topic anywhere.

Or, someone might have asked, “What were you studying and where you studying?”

Then your answer would be, “I was studying [the topic] international security¬†[while I was living] in Southeast Asia.”

The same sentence could have had these two very different meanings. Before I fixed that sentence, my readers wouldn’t have known whether I was telling them my study topic or my study topic and where I was living at the time. That lack of clarity would have been frustrating for readers.

Once you start watching for ambiguities, your writing will improve instantly. You may not catch every ambiguity, but each one you catch and edit will make your writing clearer and more convincing.

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