When writing or editing, we may think we’re communicating clearly, but in fact, we’re expecting our readers to make the same assumptions, conceptual leaps, and understand the same references that we do. In other words, we’re expecting them to understand our intentions — what we mean and not what we say.
There’s a slide titled “STUDENT WHO OBTAINED 0% IN AN EXAM But he didnt [sic] answer any question wrong!!”1 making the rounds on facebook. The questions and answers on this slide are undoubtedly parodies, but they’re also exquisite examples of the potentially wide gap that can exist between clarity and intention, a gap into which readers can fall.
The first question and answer on the slide is:
Q1. In which battle did Napoleon die?
* his last battle
Technically, the answer is correct, but it’s obviously not the expected answer. The question could have been more specific:
What is the name of the battle in which Napoleon died?
This form of the question makes it clearer what type of answer is expected.2
Another question and answer from the slide:
Q9. How can a man go eight days without sleeping?
*No problem, he sleeps at night.
This question is confusing in a number of ways. While the use of the word “day” referring to a 24-hour period is commonly understood, the person answering the question used the word in the sense of “daytime” vs. “nighttime.” The question could also be asking whether a man can stay awake for eight days/nights; how a man might survive without sleeping for eight days/nights; or the method(s) a man might use to avoid sleeping for eight days/nights. You may be able to come up with other possible interpretations.
In both business and technical writing and editing, you help your readers when your documents are specific, unambiguous, and consistent.
1I’m not reposting the slide here because I haven’t received explicit permission from the author(s). However, if you have a facebook account, you can find the original slide on the CAexam Group page in the Photos area.
2Of course, regardless how the question is asked, the correct answer would be that Napoleon didn’t die in battle. He died on the island of St. Helena due to stomach cancer or, as some have maintained, of arsenic poisoning.
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