Skip to main content

Chapter 5: Linguistic Pitfalls

Chapter 5: Linguistic Pitfalls

Pitfalls: difficulties

Linguistic pitfalls are inappropriate uses of language that hinder accurate and effective communication. This can happen when we use language that is unclear, distorted, or empty in meaning.


Lack of clarity can arise in many ways. The words we use might be ambiguous or imprecise or the meanings are incomplete. But it can also be due to the failure to organise ideas properly. 

a)      Ambiguity: An ambiguous expression is one with more than one meaning or reference. There are different kinds of ambiguity:

·       Lexical Ambiguity: Lexical ambiguities are cases where a single word or name has more than one meaning in a language—for example, deep ("deep insight" vs. "deep tunnel") and bank ("river bank" vs. "investment bank") and words like light and over. Consider also a Japanese teacher, which might mean a teacher from Japan or anyone who teaches Japanese. Even place names can be ambiguous. Tilottama is commonly used to refer to one of the municipal and rapidly growing cities in Nepal. But Tilottama is also the name of the river that passes through Tilottama Municipality. 

·       Referential Ambiguity: Referential ambiguity arises when the context does not make it clear what a pronoun or quantifier is referring to. 

    John hit Peter with his iPhone. Then he died. (John, Peter or someone else?) 

    Sia and Rita gave some cookies to Riya and Ram because they liked them. 

·       Syntactic Ambiguity: Syntactic ambiguity occurs when there is more than one way to interpret the grammatical structure of an expression. This can happen even when the meanings of the individual words are clear. 

    Hari saw Shyam on the roof with a telescope. (Did Hari use a telescope or did he see Shyam carrying one on the roof?) 

    The students were told to stop partying at midnight. (Were they told not to hold midnight parties or were they told at midnight not to party anymore?) 

    Visiting relatives can be boring. (Are visiting relatives boring or is it boring to visit relatives?) 

·       To remove ambiguity, we can rewrite our sentences so that they are no longer ambiguous. Or we can list all the different interpretations. This process is called disambiguation. Take the famous Zen question, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" We can point out that sound is lexically ambiguous—it might mean a physical vibration through some medium such as air, or it might mean an auditory conscious experience. When no human being or animal is around, the falling tree would make a sound in the first but not the second sense. 

·       It is important to be able to spot ambiguity in evaluating arguments. Equivocation occurs when a key term changes meaning in the middle of an argument. 

b)      Vagueness:  A term is vague if it has an imprecise boundary. A sunny room is no longer bright when the sun is gone. But as the sun sets, there is no point in time when the room suddenly changes from being bright to not bright. So bright is vague. Tallis also vague since there are borderline cases where it is impossible to say whether the person is tall or not, even when we know that person's exact height. The meaning of tall is just not precise enough. If you think about it, probably most words in our language are vague in some way—for example, mountain, clever, and smelly. 

§  Vagueness is different from ambiguity. A term can be vague even though it is not ambiguous, such as the Atlantic Ocean. An ambiguous term might have very precise meanings. For example, a billion is normally taken to be one thousand million, but some people take it to mean one million million. So billion is ambiguous, but the two possible meanings are very precise! 

§  Vagueness in a statement decreases the amount of information that is being conveyed. Consider these statements in increasing order of vagueness: 

§  Five men and two women suffered from minor bruises in the accident. 

§  A few men and women suffered from bruises in the accident.

§  A few people were hurt in the accident. 

§  When a statement is more precise, it contains more details and runs a higher risk of being wrong. If it turns out that only four men were hurt in the accident, the first two statements will be false but the third one is still true. 

§  So being vague can be useful if we want to avoid being wrong. But it also means we should be careful of vague statements that carry no useful information.

§  Politicians are very good at this game, promising to do this or that when the time is right but without saying what counts as the right time. Similarly, horoscope entries are full of useless and vague predictions. A typical one might say: "Be prepared for a change of direction this week". But what counts as a change of direction? Does it include someone blocking your way so you can't walk in a straight line? Without more concrete clarification, we can easily find one event or another as "evidence" that confirms the prediction. 

§  So it is important to avoid vagueness in situations that require concrete information. In job applications, for example, employers usually want clear evidence of your abilities and achievements. Numerical facts can get the point across quickly. In your CV instead of vague general statements such as "responsible for writing user guides," it would be more impressive to say "wrote five program manuals for 7,000 customers within one week."

c)      Incomplete Meaning: The following question appeared in an aptitude test for primary-school children in Hong Kong. You are supposed to pick the odd one out: 

Apple, banana, watermelon, orange, pear

·      Such questions are common in IQ tests. These questions do not have correct answers. The official answer to the question above is "banana" presumably because its shape is the least spherical. But one could equally have picked “watermelon" because it is the only vine crop on the list; or “orange" because it is the only one with an orange colour! The point is that it does not make sense to judge whether two things are similar or different unless we say how they should be compared. 

·      Terms like similar, same as, different, useful, better, and important have incomplete meanings. They presuppose certain standards of comparison, and their meanings are unclear if the standards are not specified. Is love more important than a banana? It depends on whether you are trying to cure loneliness or distract an attacking gorilla. 

·      In some situations, the standard of comparison is clear even if it is not made explicit. If someone looks at two identical twinsand says they are exactly alike, he is probably saying that they look similar. But sometimes the standard of comparison can be totally lacking. A breakfast cereal advertisement might say: "A healthier alternative for your family." But healthier compared to what? Surely not healthier than all other alternatives for breakfast. Without a meaningful comparison, the claim has no concrete content at all. 

d)      More Global Defects: Ambiguity, vagueness, and incomplete meaning occur at the level of words or sentences. But lack of clarity can also happen at a more global level. If an article lacks a coherent structure or the connections between the sentences are unclear, it will be difficult to understand the article as a whole, even if the individual sentences are relatively clear. The same applies to a lecture or a presentation. To avoid this problem, it is crucial to plan ahead and organise the ideas using a good framework. 


a)      Inappropriate Emotional Connection: Distortion is a matter of misconstruing the meaning of words, such as giving an incorrect reportive definition. Another typical example is the use of inappropriate emotive connotations. Many linguistic expressions are not purely descriptive but carry positive or negative connotations. Describing someone as "generous" is to portray that person in a positive light. However, sometimes people attach emotional connotations to words that do not have any. Or they try to choose words with a particular connotation to get people to see things their way. Here are some examples: 

    Defining religion as a superstitious belief in the existence of God.

    Insisting on calling a mistake as a valuable learning opportunity.

    Trying to be diplomatic by saying that someone is genuinely interested in other people rather than being nosy.

In everyday life, it is not easy to avoid using terms that carry connotations of one kind or another. Whether you describe a person as "independent" or "uncooperative" reflects your judgment of the person. We should be alert to the connotations of the words that we use and be careful of attempts to use such connotations to bias our perception. 


All politicians are corrupt.


What about Nelson Mandela and Václav Havel? They are well-respected politicians with integrity.


They are not corrupt, so they are not real politicians.

b)      Weasel Words: These are cases where the ordinary meaning of a word is changed inappropriately in the middle of a discussion, usually in response to some counterexample or an objection. Take the following example: 

Binod seems to be suggesting that a person cannot be a "real" politician unless that person is corrupt. But a real politician is just the same as a politician and both Mandela and Havel have been presidents of their own countries and active in political affairs, so there is no reason why they should not be considered politicians. 

The other problem is that if politicians have to be corrupt, Binod’s claim that all politicians are corrupt becomes an empty and uninteresting claim since he is in effect saying that "all corrupt politicians are corrupt."

c)      Quoting out of Context: Distortion includes misrepresenting what other people have said, deliberately or not. A movie critic might say sarcastically, "This is a fantastic movie if you are brain-dead." A dishonest advertisement might then quote the critic as saying "a fantastic movie"! This way of quoting out of context is unfortunately quite common. For example, in 2009, the British Homeopathic Associationpresented material to the British Government claiming that there is scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of homeopathic therapy.

There is some evidence that homeopathic treatments are more effective than placebo.

Encouraging right? But read the full paragraph where the quote comes from:

There is some evidence that homeopathic treatments are more effective than placebo; however, the strength of this evidence is low because of the low methodological quality of the trials. Studies of high methodological quality were more likely to be negative than lower-quality studies. Further high-quality studies are needed to confirm these results (Cucherat et al., 2000).

So it turns out that the researcher's conclusion is just the opposite of the initial impression! Unfortunately, this kind of selective quotation, or quote mining, is very common. We have to be very careful and if we are suspicious we should try and look up the original sources ourselves. 

d)      Category Mistake: A category mistake also distorts meaning. This is to assign a property to an object when it is logically impossible for an object of that kind to have the property in question. The famous linguist Noam Chomskygave a well-known example of a grammatical yet incoherent sentence: Colourless green ideas sleep furiously. Since an idea is not the kind of thing that can sleep or have a colour, the sentence exemplifies the category mistake. 

   Similarly, take the slogan "Information wants to be free." The first problem with this statement is that it is ambiguous because free can either mean "easy to access" or "does not costing anything". So it is not clear what the sentence really means. Does it mean most people want the information to be free? But that is simply not true. In general, we are reluctant to publicise information about sensitive financial or private matters. Perhaps a better interpretation of the statement is that once released, information tends to spread around and cannot be contained. 

   Sometimes category mistakes are the results of careless writing or bad grammar. A student might write in a hurry, "Procrastination is a person who keeps putting off what he should do." Interpreted literally, this sentence is logically false, because procrastination is a character trait or a habit, not a person. But the intended meaning is clear enough. 

   Reification is a type of category mistake. The word reifycame from the Latin word res, which means "thing". Reification is treating an abstract idea or property as if it were a concrete physical object. Take "The truth wants to be told." It treats truth as if it were a person who wanted things to happen, which is impossible. But it is not hard to guess what the speaker is trying to say. Maybe she is saying it is important, to tell the truth, or perhaps she thinks people will be interested to know the truth. Similarly, the Cuban leader Fidel Castro said "History will absolve me" when he was on trial at some point. But history is not a person who can forgive or absolve anybody. Presumably, he was saying that people will eventually agree with what he had done. 

   In general, better avoid reification unless you want dramatic impact. If you have to use it, make sure you know what you really want to say. 

3.      EMPTY MEANING: Empty meaning is a case in which words are used without serving any useful purpose or providing little information. For example, careful analysis often requires drawing subtle distinctions. Here are two examples: 

   "We must follow God's will, and not what we or other people think God wants us to do." This distinction is empty because there is no way to follow God's will other than to follow what we or other people think is his will. 

   Enjo kösai means "compensated dating" in Japanese. The practice started in Japan (and has now spread to many countries) and involves men giving money to young girls in exchange for companionship and sometimes even sex. Many people insist it is not prostitution, but if sex is involved, the distinction is not an empty one. 

    Questions can also be empty when they serve no useful purpose. Form I-94W is filled out by many non-U.S. citizens when they enter the United States. The form includes questions such as, "Are you now involved in espionage or sabotage or in terrorist activities?" and "Are you seeking entry to engage in criminal or immoral activities?" Surely we do not expect spies or criminals to answer truthfully, so it is not clear why such questions are needed. Someone who answers yes is probably a little bit crazy, so maybe that is the real purpose of the questions! 

    Apart from empty questions, there are also empty statements. These are claims that purport to provide useful information, but fail to do so in the relevant context. Consider this weather forecast: 

   Either it will rain tomorrow or it will not. If it rains tomorrow, then precipitation will occur. There might or might not be a heavy overcast tomorrow. But if there is a heavy overcast that lasts the whole morning, then it will not be a very sunny morning. 

    You can see that these empty statements fail to make any definite prediction about tomorrow's weather. They will be true whatever the weather is like the next day. These sentences are all analytic and in this context, they convey no concrete information at all. 

    Consider the slogan survival of the fittest often used to describe Darwin’s theory of evolution. Some people criticised the claim by saying that fittest just means "those which survive." So the whole claim becomes "those which survive, survive," which is of course empty and trivially true. 

    Analytic statements can also convey useful conversational implicatures. Suppose Hira asks whether Sita will come to the party, and Sita replies, "If I come, I come." This empty reply does not answer the question at all, but it shows that the speaker is hesitant and does not want to commit herself.

   We often use analytic statements to express uncertainty or to emphasise the available options. If we don't know whether a proposal will be successful, we might say "this might or might not work" as a qualification. Or if we want to remind an indecisive person to make up his mind, we might say something like, "Either you do it or you don't." These are not cases of linguistic pitfalls since they serve to convey useful conversational implicatures. 

4.      GOBBLEDYGOOK EVERYWHERE: The word gobbledygook was coined by Texan lawyer Maury Maverick in 1944 to describe obscure language full of jargon (specialised language). It is an extreme form of linguistic pitfalls, where simple ideas are made unnecessarily complicated and cliches (a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought) are dressed up as profound truths. Yet they can be found everywhere. Here are two samples from actual business writing (BBC News, 2003):

   The benefit of having dedicated subject matter experts who are able to evangelise <convert> the attributes and business imperatives of their products is starting to bear fruit.

   I admire your focused attention to screening the quantumof remaining potentiality vs. the generic strategic quantum of growth potentiality that we are now trying to seek access to. 

     Many people seem to think that long strings of management jargon indicate sophistication and professionalism. But in fact, they hinder communication and are unnecessarily long-winded. The first sentence just says that using experts to promote their products is bringing benefits. The second one is rather incomprehensible. Perhaps the writer is just saying "I admire you for making the best of what we have."

     Legal documents also contain a lot of gobbledygook. Consider the following piece of real traffic regulation: 

     No vehicle shall be turned so as to proceed in the opposite direction within an intersection, or upon any street in a business district, or upon a freeway, expressway or controlled-access highway, or where authorised signs are erected to prohibit such movement, or at any other location unless such movement can be made with reasonable safety to other users of the street and without interfering with the safe operation of any traffic that may be affected by such movement. 

     The sentence is certainly verbose (worldly)— The sentence is also way too long and creates confusion. In particular, the scope of unless is not clear—is the sentence saying that a U-turn is not allowed anywhere unless it is safe to do so, or is it saying that a U-turn is absolutely prohibited in those places listed, and otherwise only when it is safe? 

     Eliminating gobbledygook and adopting plain language is not solely a matter of style and preference. There are practical benefits as well. Legal documents are supposed to provide guidance, and clear language helps citizens understand their rights and duties. For many organisations, employees make fewer errors when documents and instructions are written in plain language. Clients have fewer enquiries and complaints, and they are more satisfied. Plain language is also important for consumer protection when they purchase products and services. 



Popular posts from this blog

BBS First Year English Question Paper with Possible Answers (TU 2021)

PROFESSIONS FOR WOMEN - Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Summary : Virginia Adeline Woolf (1882-1941) was an English novelist and essayist, regarded as one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century. She was one of the leaders in the literary movement of modernism.  The speech of  Professions for Women  was given in 1931 to the Women’s Service League by Virginia Woolf. It was also included in  Death of a Moth  and  Other Essays  in 1942. Throughout the speech, Virginia Woolf brings forward a problem that is still relevant today:  gender inequality .   Woolf’s main point in this essay was to bring awareness to the phantoms (illusions) and obstacles women face in their jobs. Woolf argues that women must overcome special obstacles to become successful in their careers. She describes two hazards she thinks all women who aspire to professional life must overcome: their tendency to sacrifice their own interests to those of others and their reluctance (hesitancy) to challenge conservative male attitudes .  She starts her

The Etiquette of Freedom - Gary Snyder

  In his essay " The Etiquette of Freedom ," Gary Snyder explores the concept of freedom in relation to nature and culture. He argues that freedom is not simply the absence of constraints (restrictions), but rather the ability to live in harmony with the natural world. This requires a deep understanding of the environment and a willingness to respect its limits. Snyder begins by defining the terms " wild " and " culture ." He argues that " wild " does not mean " untamed " or " uncivilised ," but rather " self-organizing ." A wild system is one that is able to maintain its own equilibrium (balance) without the intervention of humans. Culture, on the other hand, is a human-made system that is designed to meet our needs. Snyder then goes on to discuss the relationship between freedom and culture. He argues that our culture has become increasingly alienated from nature and that this has led to a loss of freedom. We have