How words are used and meant to be understood can be risky, like walking a tightrope – with a fine line between making an impact and sticking to the facts. When do declarations made in notices and announcements or advertisements go too far? A couple of recent examples of wording offering prizes in two sweepstakes use ambiguous language to communicate the prize. One promises you 2,000 trips to paradise and the other 1,000 free nights in Geneva. What they mean is one trip to paradise for 2,000 winners, and one free night in Geneva for 1,000 victors. Is that clear in the wording of the prizes? The contest rules defined in the small print set the record straight, but at first glance the prizes are much more attractive than what’s intended. More accurate wording would have been, “Win One of 2,000 Trips”, or “A Free Night for 1,000 Winners”.


Take the definition of “natural”, which is linked to the word’s literal root, nature. Many will agree with Michael Pollan, a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, that there isn’t much “natural” in “such edible oxymorons as ‘natural’ Cheetos Puffs, ‘all-natural’ Sun Chips, ‘all-natural’ Naked Juice, ‘100 percent all-natural’ Tyson chicken nuggets and so forth”. That controversy is weighty because it concerns the definition of not just the word, but the fundamental understanding of the concept.

If you’re on the side of the clarity camp, you’ll opt for accuracy over ambiguity, uncertainty and hesitation. But if you like big, bold assertions, you’ll probably tolerate a pledge that’s not exactly what it seems. It may take a minute to uncover what’s being offered but, in an age of speed and casualness, taking a moment to decipher a message might not be such a bad thing after all.


Michael Pollan’s article entitled “Why ‘Natural’ Doesn’t Mean Anything Anymore” appeared in The New York Times on 28 April 2015.

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