Avoiding ambiguity

In this post I’m going to focus on three small things that can derail your otherwise clear writing by creating ambiguity: slashes, Latin abbreviations, and “ensure”.


We’ll look at how you can avoid ambiguity by making sure you:

      Use exact words and punctuation instead of slashes

      Replace e.g. and i.e. with words

      Use “ensure” only when you really mean it.



Use exact words and punctuation instead of slashes

Officially, the slash (/) is used to denote alternatives, such as where there are two variants for a word, for example, she/he or color/colour. However, many people use the slash in place of a variety of words and punctuation. This means the reader often has to guess the meaning of the slash—for example, is it being used as a comma, does it mean “or,” or does it mean “and”?


The interpretability of a slash can derail the clarity of an otherwise well-written sentence. The example below shows how much ambiguity can come from just one slash!


Example: The new strategy will focus on streamlining/ending projects that don’t align with the organization’s vision and long-term goals.


Possible interpretations:

a. The slash means “streamlining” and “ending” are used interchangeably. All non-aligning projects are closing.

b. The slash means “or.” Some non-aligning projects will end while others will be streamlined.

c. The slash means “and.” All non-aligning projects will first be streamlined and then will end.

d. The slash shows possibilities. It’s not yet decided whether non-aligning projects will be streamlined or ended.


When you write, replace any slashes with your intended words or punctuation so that your sentence says exactly what you mean and can’t be wrongly interpreted.



Replace e.g. and i.e. with words

The tiny abbreviations e.g. and i.e. are great for saving space in a document. However, as they are based on Latin (not a language many people speak!), they can lead to ambiguity and misunderstandings. 


Look at sentences A and B in the box below, do you definitely understand the difference? Do you think everyone reading the notice will understand the difference?


Sentence A: Non-essential items (e.g., magazines and souvenirs) will be removed from the team kitchen to improve cleanliness.

Sentence B: Non-essential items (i.e., magazines and souvenirs) will be removed from the team kitchen to improve cleanliness.


The difference

In sentence A, an unknown list of items will be removed from the kitchen. Apart from magazines and souvenirs we don’t know what is going to be removed.


In sentence B, only magazines and souvenirs are going to be removed.


To avoid the potential ambiguity caused by the Latin abbreviations, replace them with words to say exactly what you mean. Replace “e.g.” with for example, such as, or like


Replace “i.e.” with namely or that is. Or just skip “i.e.” completely. For example, based on the sentences in the box, you could say “Magazines and souvenirs will be removed from the team kitchen to improve cleanliness”.



Use “ensure” only when you really mean it

Ensure means to “make certain something will happen or be the case.” It is a 100% promise and obligation.


If you accidentally promise something by using “ensure” and then have to go back on that promise, you can create ambiguity and uncertainty, regardless of how well you later communicate.


Overpromising: The workshops will ensure the project is fully understood by all stakeholders.


More realistic:

The workshops will help stakeholders understand the project.

The workshops aim to build understanding of the project.

We will work to enable stakeholders to understand the project.


In certain bits of writing, such as contracts, proposals or negotiations, you will need to be strict about how you use “ensure.” You might even want to use the “Find” function in your document to make sure you haven’t accidentally overpromised on something. Use alternative wording that’s still positive but doesn't create a full obligation, for example, aim to, help to, work to.