Blog Post

Saying what you mean

Sometimes, it’s remarkably difficult to say what you mean. And the consequences can be very real.

This morning I heard some advice for a particular type of heart disease: the recommended treatment is ‘fluid and salt reduction’.

Logic tells me that the suggestion is to increase fluid and decrease salt, but is that actually what the recommendation says? It could just as easily be interpreted as the reduction of fluid and the reduction of salt.

I’m beginning to notice that writers (and speakers) get into all sorts of difficulties with lists, and this is an example. If the writer is setting up a list, then the meaning is that both fluid and salt should be reduced. But if they’re two separate, coordinating ideas, and the reader is expected to understand that ‘fluid’ means ‘fluid increase’, then the opposite conclusion makes sense.

My current thinking? Be very careful about lists. And be very careful about being precise in giving instructions. Oh, and if you have heart disease, it’s probably best to increase fluids and decrease salt.

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