Are We Being Clear?

Mixed Messages Header

A few days ago, I posted the picture shown below on LinkedIn, just for fun. I got a lot of comments, and a few readers weren’t sure what the sentence could mean just by stressing a different word each time.

Then Michael Coroneos sent me the link to this anonymous explanation, which I’m sharing here. And thanks, Michael!

I didn’t say she stole my money — someone else said it.

I didn’t say she stole my money — I didn’t say it.

I didn’t say she stole my money — I only implied it.

I didn’t say she stole my money — I said someone did, but not necessarily her.

I didn’t say she stole my money — I considered it borrowed, even though she didn’t ask.

I didn’t say she stole my money — only that she stole money.

I didn’t say she stole my money — she stole stuff which cost me money to replace.

You might have slightly different ideas for what each of those sentences can mean, but these should at least help you if you were confused — or if you didn’t see the original post.

Somewhat along the lines of the information above, there’s a word in English that can cause a reader to misunderstand what the writer means, but this one doesn’t depend on how the word is said; it depends on where the writer places it in the sentence.

Below are five sentences (which come from my Brush Up on Your Business Writing Skills workbook) but with three separate meanings thanks to the placement of “only.”

Which ones do you see that mean the same thing but are written differently?

1.  Only she works in the garden center.
2.  She only works in the garden center.
3.  She works only in the garden center.
4.  She works in the only garden center.
5.  She works in the garden center only.

 

Do you see the three that mean the same thing? Yes, #2, 3, and 5.

1.  Only she works in the garden center. (No one else works there.)
2.  She only works in the garden center. (She doesn’t work anywhere else.)
3.  She works only in the garden center. (She doesn’t work anywhere else.)
4.  She works in the only garden center. (There is just one garden center.)
5.  She works in the garden center only. (She doesn’t work anywhere else.)

Writing is work! We have to always be careful to send the message we mean to; we really can’t get away with saying “But you knew what I meant!” No. Really. We can’t.