Friday, February 22, 2013

Why Doesn’t Anyone Understand Me? A Very Good Look at Vagueness and Ambiguity in Writing

A continuum from left to right from vague words to concrete words: thing, instrument, brass instrument, trumpet, my silver Yamaha trumpet.
This continuum shows how we can move words from
vague and ambiguous to concrete and specific.

When writing an essay, a writer has only one chance to make himself or herself clear to the reader.  That means the writer has to watch out for the pitfalls of vagueness and ambiguity in each and every sentence.

If you happened to overhear a conversation between two people at your local coffeehouse that began, “I was involved in a situation one time, and I came out of it with substantial benefit,” what would you do?  Would you guess that this person must be a bank robber?  A stockbroker?  A real estate tycoon?  Would you stick around to hear the rest of the conversation or be tempted to ask questions?  By asking questions or sticking around to find out more information, you would be able to find out that the first person’s “situation” was a game show, and his “substantial benefit” was a new job opportunity working for an encyclopedia company.  But! What if you had read the original comment and didn’t have the opportunity to learn more about his “situation” or “substantial benefit?”  This guy’s use of vague words left his comment open to all sorts of interpretations.

Identifying Vagueness in Writing

Vague words and phrases are words or groups of words that don’t really mean anything to the reader; the reader cannot read the words and think of a picture to accompany them.  I’ve used a few in the title of this essay and in the above example: "very," "good," "situation," "involved in," "one time," "came out of it," "substantial," and "benefit." 

Identifying Ambiguity in Writing

Ambiguous words or phrases are words or phrases that might mean a few different things; a reader can picture the right word or phrase, but the picture might still be the wrong picture.  For example, "chestnut" can mean a type of tree or a horse’s color.  A "picker" can be a person who picks, or it can be a spiky little weed that grows in the grass and waits for unsuspecting bare feet.  An example of ambiguity used by Barnet and Bedau in their text, Critical Thinking, Reading and Writing: A Brief Guide to Argument, is the phrase “Old Calf Pasture” as seen on a sign in the middle of a field.  It might make a reader wonder if it is a pasture for old calves, or if it is an old pasture (2011, pg. 369).

Sometimes, grammatical errors can cause ambiguity, too.  For example, think about the meaning of this sentence: "After biting the girl, the police officer took the dog to the pound."  Grammatically, this sentence is very ambiguous.  If we assume the grammar is incorrect (because of its dangling modifier), we can guess the writer means the dog bit the girl.  However, if we assume the grammar is correct, the police officer should be taken to the pound because it is the police officer who bit the girl, not the dog.

Concrete Diction, Action Verbs, and Specific Language

In addition to rereading, revising, and carefully editing grammatical errors, writers can combat vagueness and ambiguity by using concrete diction, strong verbs, and specific language.

Concrete words usually represent, as a rule of thumb, something a reader could drop on his or her foot.  Could a reader drop a job on his or her foot?  No.  However, a reader could drop an encyclopedia on his or her foot.  Could readers drop bad weather on their feet?  No.  However, readers could drop hail on their feet.  “Play,” “time,” “love,” and “dogma,” cannot be dropped on feet.  A “toy,” a “grandfather clock,” a “grandfather,” or a “dog” can be dropped on feet; not that any writers or readers would want to do so.

A strong verb is a verb the reader can visualize happening.  The verb “participated,” although it is an action verb, is still very difficult to visualize.  Wyrick, in Steps to Writing Well, uses the following example: “Clyde participated in an off-Broadway play.”  This sentence makes a reader wonder how Clyde participated.  The sentence can be clarified with the rewrite “Clyde held the cue cards for the actors in an off-Broadway play” (2011, pg. 161).  The reader can much more easily visualize “held the cue cards.”

Specific language can be understood on a continuum from left to right:  “Thing” could be a noun on the least specific side of the continuum.  “Instrument” might fall someplace left of center.  “Brass instrument” might be just right of center, toward the more specific.  “Trumpet” might get a little closer to most specific.   “My silver Yamaha trumpet” definitely gets the prize for most specific, unless the writer happens to have more than one silver Yamaha trumpet.

Combating vagueness and ambiguity in writing requires an eye for visual language, for sure.  However, the benefit to the writer who carefully combs through his or her own writing to find and replace such words and phrases will be many.  First and foremost, readers won't have to question meaning or impose their own interpretations onto the essay.

Want to learn more about writing essays?  

Try my complete online essay writing course on Udemy Writing for English Composition: College Essays.


  • Barnet, S. & Bedau, H. (2011). Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing: A Brief Guide to Argument (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin’s.
  • Wyrick, J. (2011). Steps to Writing Well with Additional Readings (8th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.


  1. Herzlichen dank für die Ausführliche Beschreibung echt einige gute Topics wieder dabei.
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    und Xing