Toward Unambiguous Writing

In “Normal Circumstances, Literal Language, Direct Speech Acts, the Ordinary, the Everyday, the Obvious, What Goes without Saying, and Other Special Cases” Stanley Fish hopes to overturn the understanding of interpreting as an addition to “ordinary” or “raw” facts or meanings. Instead, the act of interpretation has already occurred when we judge a situation or meaning to be normal.

He tells of a sign that reads PRIVATE MEMBERS ONLY which he has asked a class of students to interpret. He gives several of their crude responses and then tells of a student who objects to the exercise by saying “You are just playing games, everyone knows what it really means.” He had to admit the little punk was right. When we encounter a sign that says PRIVATE MEMBERS ONLY hanging on a door, we instantly know that one should not enter unless one is a member. The context allows for only one meaning. But, that wasn’t the context in which the students encountered the phrase. They encountered it in a classroom and in that context the phrase must be interpreted as ambiguous language. So in the context of the classroom, the literal meaning of the sign is not “Don’t enter if you aren’t a member” There is only one meaning per context, says Fish.

In summary there are two things I do not want to say about PRIVATE MEMBERS ONLY: that is has a literal meaning, and that it doesn’t. It does not have a literal meaning in the sense of some irreducible content which survives the sea change of situations; but in each of those situations one meaning (even if it is plural) will seem so obvious that one cannot see how it could be otherwise, and that meaning will be literal.

There is an air of equivocation in the preceding quotation. PRIVATE MEMBERS ONLY either has a literal meaning or it doesn’t. Fish seems to be performing a sort of bait-and-switch with his usage of the word “literal.” At first he is talking about a universal meaning, which he believes no word has. Then he concedes that all words have situational meanings which when we are in the situation are taken as obvious. Words do not have global literal meanings, but they always have local literal meanings, because “A sentence is never not in context.”

Equivocation is one sort of ambiguity my English Professors have always tried to teach me to avoid. However, Fish unintentionally, I think, attempts to evacuate the concept of ambiguity when he writes, “to label a sentence ‘ambiguous’ will be to distinguish it only if there are sentences that always and only mean one thing.” There is no unambiguous language so to call a sentence ambiguous is vacuous. Fish gives the example “The suit is light,” which is usually regarded as ambiguous because we can imagine several situations where the sentence means different things. Generally, the answer is to disambiguate the sentence with some addition like “The suit is too light to wear on such a cold day.” Fish relentlessly maintains that the sentence is still ambiguous. We can still imagine a situation where the sentence doesn’t mean what it seems to at first glance. A woman with fashion expertise, for instance, might say that when dark colors on cold days are in fashion.

As someone who started a blog in order to practice writing, I feel I should save us all from believing that ambiguity cannot be avoided. It is true that for any sentence we can imagine a situation where it does not mean what it does in the situation in which we first encountered it, but there is a kind of ambiguity that can be removed from sentences. The kind of ambiguity I speak of can be identified when it exists within a situation where multiple meanings could be true. To return to the previous example, we call “the suit is light” ambiguous when it is said in a scenario in which the hearer is confused whether the speaker it referring to weight or color. A sentence is then unambiguous when the situation in which it is said affords only one possible meaning. In each of those situations, which meaning we intend will be given by the context. The writer then is responsible for giving appropriate context or choosing a sentence that matches the context so as to remove confusion.

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3 Responses to Toward Unambiguous Writing

  1. The other one says:

    Do you really think that a writer is responsible for excluding all ambiguity in a sentence? I think some texts have transcended times because they allow for ambiguity (and therefore can reach a wider audience). And if the author’s goal was to exclude ambiguity (if it was possible), that would be quite some tedious writing indeed that may become too tedious for the reader to care to endure. You would go from “that suit is too light to wear on such a cold day” to “that suit, and by suit I mean the business double breasted type that men generally wear, is too light in weight, meaning it weighs less than half a pound and is woven more loosely or made of material such as linen, to wear on such a cold day, and by cold I mean that the temperature is lower than 55 degrees Fahrenheit.” Although we are closer to being less ambiguous, who would want to read a sentence like that?

  2. mattrock23 says:

    I think there is a difference between precision and specificity in writing. Both of which are common interpretations of unambiguity. Uberspecific writing can at times be tedious (though sometimes that’s what it takes to understand a concept). Precision, though, is the ability to convey exactly what you want say. That can be achieved without going into specifics. Often we have no specifics in mind when we hope to communicate something. Maybe a better word for what should be avoided is “vagueness.”

    Sure, some writings are quite interesting in their ambiguity. That’s fine. The author intended them to be ambiguous. Imagine an author’s frustration if a story were meant to be ambiguous but all readers always came up with the same reading. So the skill I hope to gain in my practice of writing is to be able to create a text that will be understood the way I intend.

  3. The other one says:

    But you disproved yourself even here. You were not able to convey your real intent in your original writing and had to redefine that when you said ambiguity in writing, you meant precision rather than specifics. Do you think you will be able to foresee all misconceptions? Or do you think there is a point where you have to let go of your text and realize that there will always be an interpretation different from what you intended? Why do you think some authors refuse to specify what they meant when asked by their readers? I think that if you want to make it your goal as an author to never be misunderstood, that is fine. I just think that you will find it a bit frustrating and that you will not be able to avoid the tediousness. I think as a writer, there will be a point where I will be okay if someone sees an analogy for the French Revolution when I never meant for there to be one. Who knows. Maybe I did intend for that analogy but just didn’t know it consciously . . . 🙂

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