Rachael on the go

Quick writing tips and ideas, but some musings too

Readers can misunderstand you subconsciously (and sometimes on purpose)

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This morning I saw a good example of word swapping: that is, when a reader mentally changes written text to match their expectations or focus. The example was prompted by a news story on a university student protest, which described one woman as a protestor. In an online response, a reader of the story then called the woman a ‘professor’. The reader had the context of ‘university’ in mind, and simply swapped one longish ‘p’ word for another that fits that context. We all do this mental word swapping when we read, usually because we’re reading in a hurry and not paying enough attention, or because we’re subconsciously substituting information that is more familiar or more pleasing to us.

The contextual spin is interesting because it can be culturally or event specific. If you see the phrase ‘food and drinks’ on a brochure for school holiday care, I’m sure you imagine sandwiches and juice will be provided. But the same phrase on a work party invitation would prompt you to imagine yourself eating canapés and alcoholic beverages. In these two cases, the writer doesn’t have to explain themselves because the event context does it for them. Unfortunately, sometimes the writer and the reader each have a different context in mind.

A simple example is how staff interpret ‘casual dress’ on an invitation to a workplace planning day: some may still wear a suit and just forget the tie, while others may turn up in shorts and a t-shirt. The context of ‘casual’ at work means different things to different people, and I advise you avoid the problem by always being specific when instructing people about a workplace event or process.

Readers can also twist a word’s meaning to suit their personal agenda. An example is when staff are asked to provide comments on a manager as part of 360 degree feedback for the manager’s performance review. Most staff will understand that the comments must be work related and useful to the person’s development as a manager. But some staff will think they can make personal comments that are irrelevant to a performance review. In this case, their personal context (perhaps a disagreement with the manager) overrides a sensible interpretation of the task.

This writing problem at work can have financial implications too. Imagine you write a quantity of 10 on a stock report, and the reader thinks you mean 10 cartons when you actually mean 10 crates, each of 50 cartons. Or imagine you send out a manufacturing order that is to be triggered by warehouse stock reaching an average of 100 cartons. Your reader may think you mean ‘average’ in the sense of ‘around’ or ‘in the range of’, so around 100 crates at each warehouse. But, what if you actually want the trigger to be the statistical ‘mean average’? In that case, the trigger is when the sum of the crates at all your warehouses, divided by the number of warehouses, is exactly 100: some warehouses may have almost no crates, and some may have a few hundred, but the mean average across warehouses is 100. Two completely different scenarios can occur, depending on the reader’s interpretation of one word.

So, while you can’t preempt the reader who swapped ‘professor’ for ‘protestor’, you can help a reader better understand the context in which they need to understand your words. And you can also help stop a reader from imposing an agenda on your text. In both cases, be clear about the who, what, where, how, why and when of the situation. That is, give enough details to narrow your meaning, to the extent that your reader is less likely to fall into the trap of word swapping.

Postscript: While I’m talking about word swapping, I want to remind you of the different meanings of a statistical ‘average’ too. When using the term, you may need to explain whether you are talking about the mean (as explained above), the mode (the most common occurring value in a data set) or the median (the middle value in a date set arranged in ascending order).

Author: Rachael Dullahide

Editor, writer, writing trainer

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