Improve Your Style

Be an “Amibguity Sleuth”

Too many times, I’ve been reading an article by professionals, and suddenly come across a sentence or clause that takes a lot of effort to “decode.” This usually happens when when the reader’s mind mistakenly takes a literally- purposed phrase for a familiar idiom that might use the same combination of words. Or it can happen when the reverse appears as well: idiom-purposed for litterally-meant.

The best way to explain this is by example. Along with each example I’ll be making suggestions on how the ambiguity might be corrected — removing the “stumbling-block,” and thus improving the flow of the written work.

This one is from one of my own Tweets. It makes the reader have to decode whether I am using the word “values” as a noun or a verb:

“If they don’t attend it’s one more PROOF that GOP leadership values ideology over showing even an iota of respect for America’s institutions.”

The ambiguity arises from “GOP leadership values” When I re-read the tweet, I took “values” to be a a noun, as in GOP leadership-values. After I submbled, I remembered that I was saying that the leadership of the GOP values ideology over showing… I should have said that. Or maybe, better: the GOP’s leadership has come to value… either way would have avoided the ambiguity. Several of these in one piece of writing lowers the reader’s esteem for the writer.

I think you get the idea. As I run into more examples, I’ll update this article and put a notification on Twitter.


I am an amateur author, literary critic, poet and screenwriter. As a recently retired banker, IT salesman and software configuration manager, I write about my passions which are: the magic of English rhetoric, speculative science, drama, music and —with a jaundiced eye—occasionally, politics. With the exception of a year at University of the Pacific's Mc George School of Law, I am a product of the California public educational system, from primary school through high school, two community colleges and , San Francisco State College pursuing an English Major with Creative Writing emphasis, in the early 1960s. While at SF State I was taught by professors like S.I. Hayakawa and Manfred Wolf. Doctor Wolf, now professor at the Fromm Institute of Lifelong Learning at University of San Francisco, was my professor of Critical Writing and a true mentor. Today he is still a close friend and occassional collaborator.

0 comments on “Be an “Amibguity Sleuth”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: