What Exactly Does That Word Mean?

Posted on: May 26, 2010

No matter how well you write something, no matter what you intend the “take away” to be, unexpected interpretations can happen. Do happen. Has any piece of writing ever been understood in the same way by all those who read it?

One of the basic facts of writing and language usage is that every reader imposes her or his own interpretation on every word, phrase and idea.

You can prove this for yourself by assembling a short list of proper nouns, including the names of products, ice cream flavors, plants, animals, people, and anything else you can think of. Then, as you meet people throughout your day, ask them what their response is to each name. Do they like it? What qualities do they associate with it? What feelings does the name evoke?

Each person you ask will bring to the encounter a different set of responses, based on their own experiences, personality, tastes and impressions. Every person you approach will respond from the perspective of a unique life history. The impact of a name on someone is quite unpredictable.

And the same is true of other words as well. The dictionary may give a standardized definition of a word, but to each of us that word connotes something slightly different, because we decode it in our own context. It is so interesting (and often frustrating) that the sense and feeling of a word changes from person to person.

It is very difficult to gauge how someone will respond to what you write. What shades of meaning do your readers see in your words? What worlds of interpretation can a single phrase summon?

Now, when you write in business and technology, you need to try to stop your audience from reading unintended meanings into what you say. An effective technique for achieving this is to “pace and guide.”

This means, first, that you know your audience, which determines content, style, language level, and so on. In essence, you pace your content and how you present it to your audience’s ability and interest.

Second, it means that you must use what is known as the “general-concrete” pattern. In this method of writing, general and abstract statements are followed by a concrete case. Use specific examples, illustrations and detailed explanations to get your exact point across to your readers. Don’t just present concepts and sweeping generalities. Clarify each one with a concrete case to convey what you mean and help prevent unintended interpretations.

Although you may not always be able to prevent the amazing and acrobatic human mind from parsing your words in ways that skew your intended message, the “pace and guide” technique will help you avoid many misunderstandings.

What do you think? What writing techniques do you use to communicate your meaning accurately?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  lexpower  The Write Ideas


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