Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Business Writing Tip 19 - Definitions and Vague Words

When writing documents that other parties are going to rely on, or which govern a relationship, don’t make assumptions about the words you choose. For example – the phrase “timely payments” could be perfectly clear to you, because you know how you mean it. But you must be sure all parties governed by the document know how you mean it in the document’s context.

Be aware of the context in which you use the phrase. In our example, timely payments may mean any number of things to different people. A creditor may think a payment is “timely” if it arrives by the due date – but is that the only logical or appropriate standard? No. Standards of timeliness will depend on the reader’s (or party’s) perspective. A lawyer may think a payment is timely if it was made in time to prevent a lawsuit from being filed, a business owner may think it’s timely if it prevents the company from going under, and a consumer may think a payment is timely if it’s made in a manner that doesn’t impair a credit record.

Be aware of the innuendo that may be created by use of a phrase like timely payment. Would someone reading that phrase assume the party agreeing to make a timely payment also had a duty to protect another party’s credit rating, and that credit protection was the nature of the obligation being assumed, even though the rest of the document did not mention credit issues? Be careful.

If a word or phrase is subject to differing interpretations, or innuendo, define it. That’s your job as a good writer. Don’t leave it up to the reader, and don’t leave it up to what’s logical to you. Anticipate the varying interpretations of the phrases you choose.


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