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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Ambiguity: Avoid It

The Houston Chronicle ran this article today in the Business section.  What you won’t see if you read the article online is a subheading that was included in the print version of the paper.  It read:

It depends on whether group is deemed liable for 2004 deaths

Take a minute or two to figure out how that headline could be interpreted.  Yeah, that’s exactly how I read it too when I opened up the paper.  The first thought that crossed my mind was “Holy cow! 2004 people died?” and my eyes were glued to the article as I read on to find out how some corporation killed such a large number of people without my hearing about it earlier.  (If you’ve seen any of the Resident Evil films, “Umbrella Corp” was running through my mind.)

Some might say that the headline was well written because it technically DID do exactly what a good title is supposed to do: it made me want to keep reading.  But you shouldn’t forget that your reader is human, with all the feelings and expectations that being human entails. 

Once I figured out that what the headline meant to say was “for deaths in 2004,” I stopped reading.  Not only had I lost interest in reading the rest of the article, I also felt kind of cheated (lied-to, even!).   

I have no doubt that the author of the article didn’t intend to mislead readers about the subject of the piece.  That doesn’t keep me from feeling put-off by it, though.  Remember to avoid ambiguity at all costs when writing because however innocent a mistake might be, the results are the same as if it were intentional. 


I was reading your blog, again ^_^ I keep coming back to it every now and then and I strongly feel your words need to be in print :) Anyway, I this is one of your posts I like the most, because one thing that drives me mad is an ambiguous title. The Houston chronicle is guilty of that more times than I care to count. Lots of websites do that too. If there is one thing I have total contempt for is vague, ambiguous or misleading titles in articles or stories. And what's even worse is titles with bad grammar, lack of punctuation, or omission of words. The newspapers love to do that.

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