METM Revisited presentation 

"I had to swerve before I hit him": the perils of ambiguity and how to avoid them

Oliver Lawrence, Norma, Italy

Ever wondered if you might have unwittingly left a double entendre or ambiguous statement in a job you’ve just delivered? It’s easily done. You knew what you meant, but maybe you were so close to the text you couldn’t see the alternative reading that slunk into what you wrote.

“Toilet out of order; please use floor below”, “prostitutes appeal to Boris Johnson” and similar gems are all very amusing (snigger), but ambiguities can be costly. Grasshopper-minded consumers may bin your marketing flyer if you make them struggle to get the point. Ambiguities in engineering requirement specs can result in expensive rework if discovered too late. And in safety-critical environments, ambiguous instructions have even proved fatal. It pays to get it right.

This session discusses several types of ambiguity and their causes, from polysemy to “negative because” and what-modifies-what (hence Lily Allen’s “black cab drivers” faux pas). And then there’s the problem of leading readers up verbal dead ends: we tend to anticipate what’s coming next, and poor sentence structure can trip readers up and force them to backtrack to make out the meaning.

Attend this session and you’ll come away equipped with various strategies for banishing ambiguity from your texts. It’s about cultivating an awareness of the pitfalls and maintaining a distance (social or otherwise) – to see what you actually said rather than what you meant to. A way of detecting some types of ambiguity using a freeware computer tool is also suggested.

About the presenter
Oliver Lawrence turns Italian marketing texts and copywriting briefs into incisive English, specialising in tourism, leisure and luxury. A CIOL Fellow, Chartered Linguist, ITI Assessor, MITI, mentor and various other stuff, he created the online course Clear Writing, Clear Benefits for eCPD/CIOL and lurks online at and @oliverlawrence1. Interests include poetry, cake and gin, although not necessarily in that order.