A little room for error

Cultural life would be poorer without a little ambiguity, argues David Bernstein, but you need absolute clarity when crossing linguistic and national borders

It was my first trip abroad, my first encounter with a foreign form. The Boulogne hotel required details/ name, address, date of birth, reason for travel – health, business, tourism. ‘Delete where inapplicable,’ it instructed in French. This was translated as ‘Please scratch the useless mention’.

The phrase popped into my mind last month when I read the English instructions for the entryphone of the apartment we’d rented on the Riviera: ‘If you want to see the person, press the button on the left.’ I spent some minutes searching for the screen where I could check on the visitor, before I realised there was no screen and that the word ‘see’ meant ‘admit’. Pressing the button would open the gate. No means of checking.

‘See’ had been used idiomatically, which can, literally, cause complications. I once asked a delegate at an international workshop whose question had puzzled me, ‘Where are you coming from?’ ‘Lagos’, he replied.

‘Scratch the useless mention’ may have been the quaint English of a French hotelier, but it did convey the necessary procedure, whereas ‘If you want to see the person’ – an instruction by the English owner of the apartment – was, at best, ambiguous.

The English language is rich and replete with meanings, some contrary, some unintentional. Possibilities for confusion are omnipresent.

Indeed, the German philosopher Karl Popper maintains that ‘it is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood’. The communicator has to aim for absolute clarity, to examine not simply if what is said is clear but in what way the message can be misinterpreted. Clarity may begin at home, with the sender, but it is of no avail if the sender doesn’t also consider the message from the receiver’s standpoint.

This also holds true for signage. Successful communication is built on a shared code. How confident is the designer that his/her understanding of the sign’s meaning is shared by all who see and need to act upon it? Is the downward-pointing arrow uniformly understood? Does it signify the floor one is on, or the floor below? If the former, is the latter indicated by a 45 degree-angled arrow which suggests the presence of a flight of stairs or an escalator?

Ambiguity may be cracked open and the ‘useless mention’ discarded when there is time to peruse, but messages are generally interpreted under pressure. In extreme cases, ambiguity can be fatal.

A sign in English in a Prague hotel elevator read, ‘Do not use elevator in case of fire’, which is not quite the same as the usual ‘In case of fire do not use elevator’, but instead suggests a lift capable of spontaneous combustion. Then there is the tourist in a wildlife park who interpreted the sign ‘Fine for parking’ as a piece of official encouragement.

I’m not against ambiguity. Without it, much of what enriches my life would be diminished…; poetry, jokes, cryptic crosswords.

Even that ardent exponent of clear thinking, Edward de Bono, warns against the over-crystallisation of your thoughts lest it may rid you of ‘useful ambiguity’.
So before you begin scratching the ambiguity from your text or signage you must first decide whether it’s useless or useful. But that presupposes you recognise that ambiguity is there in the first place. Popper lays odds against you doing so.

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