Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ambiguity or Literalism in Language?

What do you want your words to say? Do you want your words to be ambiguous, so they can be interpreted in a variety of ways? Or do you want your words to be clear and unambiguous, so they can be understood in only one way?

This matters a great deal. For example, if you say that you are going to assess an employee in an annual review, what do you mean by "annual"? What is a "year"? That may seem obvious, but is it? Does the year begin on January 1? Or do you mean a year from when the person was hired? Then there is the fiscal year. When does your fiscal year start? And for schools the "year" begins on the day school begins. You had better be clear what you mean by "year."

Now, there may be areas in which you intend there to be some ambiguity in order to ensure that people can have some freedom to make their own decisions. Here one has to be careful. If you use the same terms in two places, one where you intend ambiguity, another where you intend clarity, you can create confusion. For example, if you have that employees need to demonstrate "effectiveness," and you intend for it to be sufficiently vague as to capture a variety of ways your employees are effective, you cannot then later use the term to be specific unless you specify that -- for example, including the phrase:
here "effective" means...

You must also keep In mind the fact that you are bound to have some employees who take language more literally than do others. In fact, if you keep these employees in mind, you can avoid any number of problems not just with them, but with the rest of your employees.

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