All writers want to communicate effectively with their readers. To this end, they select words and phrases commonly used in everyday conversation — but writers need to express ideas accurately too. Unfortunately, there are some English words and phrases that are very ambiguous. Below is a list of some phrases that I hear often that you might want to consider avoiding:
For some, it means: twice per week while others might interpret it as once every two weeks. I suggest that you use one of the previously listed alternatives.
“Do you mind if I borrow your pen?” He asked. She replied, “Yes.”
It’s unclear whether the answer means, “Yes, I mind” or “Yes, you may.” Avoid this problem by giving a full answer (it’s only two more words!)
Originally, this term meant that there was little government involvement in personal affairs (another term for this was “laisse-faire.”) More recently, however, liberalism has been interpreted as welcoming government involvement to solve social problems.
Demure and demur
To demur is to resist or protest, whereas demure means someone that is shy and reserved. This one you don’t necessarily need to avoid, but you should be aware of the difference and use it correctly.
He wants to have his cake and eat it too
As Harlan Ellison pointed out, it is difficult to eat cake without having it first. If someone wants contradictory results, then they want to eat their cake and have it too.
Right vs. Correct
This problem comes up when directing someone to turn left or right. I need to force myself to say “correct” instead otherwise it could be a disaster.
You can’t spend too much time speaking to customers
Is this a warning meaning: “If you spend too much time speaking with customers than something bad will happen” or a way of saying that: “There should be no limit on the time spent speaking to customers?”
You have until Wednesday
Does this mean that the item is due at the end of business on Tuesday or the end of business on Wednesday? Be precise!
The word “only”
“Only” can mean solely, “I want two cups of sugar only.” This means that too much sugar is unacceptable. “Only” can also mean that the maximum is quite modest i.e. “I only want two cups of sugar” is a way of saying this, but more than two cups of sugar may be welcome.
Example: “I didn’t do nothing to no one nowhere.”
Double negatives are more common than you might think and can often be heard in informal speech and song lyrics; however, they’re grammatically incorrect. Instead, you should use any i.e. “I didn’t do anything to anyone anywhere.”
What ambiguous phrases do you hear or read often? Comment below!
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