Misinterpretations and Ambiguous Words by Ally Broadfield

posted in: Uncategorized | 14

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.              ~Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

A Wordle made from the posts on Embracing Romance
A Wordle made from the posts on Embracing Romance

A few days ago, I received a message in my inbox with the subject line “Discount Fiber Newsletter.” I freaked out because I’m about to turn forty-three and for the love of Pete, I’m already getting geriatric spam! It turned out to be about fiber optic cables, but it got me thinking about how easy it is to misinterpret the meaning of a word or sentence, especially without context.

Of course, part of the blame lies with the complexity of the English language. I do not envy non-native speakers trying to learn the language. Homonyms (a word that is spelled and pronounced like another word but is different in meaning) can be confusing even for native speakers. How many of us can honestly say we’ve never mixed up hear/here, lead/led or affect/effect, to name a few?

And how about idioms, which are expressions that cannot be understood from the meanings of their separate words, but have a different meaning of their own. One of my favorites is Wag the Dog, which means a diversion away from something of greater importance. But does everyone know that? It’s certainly not a literal translation.

Ford Madox Brown's 1821 painting of Romeo and Juliet
Ford Madox Brown’s 1821 painting of Romeo and Juliet

To use some examples from literature, let’s talk about Shakespeare’s “star-crossed lovers,” Romeo and Juliet. Unfortunately, star-crossed doesn’t mean, as most people think, that they’re fated to be together. It means that they are fated to die because the stars have “crossed” them. I’ve seen that one misused so many times I’ve lost count. And what about one of the most famous lines from Romeo and Juliet, “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” It doesn’t mean where are you, Romeo, because he is standing right in front of Juliet when she says it. Wherefore means “why.” Juliet is asking why Romeo has to be a Montague.

So what does all of this mean for writers? Not only do we have to make every word count, but we also have to make sure that when we put the words together on the page, their meaning is clear to our readers.

Have you ever read something in a book that might not have meant what the author intended?



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VICTORIA VANE is an award-winning author of smart and sexy romance with works ranging from wild comedic romps to emotionally compelling erotic romance. Her books have received more than twenty awards and nominations to include the 2014 RONE Award for Treacherous Temptations and Library Journal Best E-Book romance of 2012 for The Devil DeVere series. She lives the beautiful upstate of South Carolina with her husband, two sons, a little black dog, and an Arabian horse.

14 Responses

  1. Collette Cameron

    Great post, Ally. I have ELL students in my class and they get so confused over learning English. I agree, every word we write must count.

    • allybroadfield

      Thanks, Collette! I can only imagine how difficult it is to learn English.

  2. Barbara Monajem

    I have often come across something in a story that I didn’t understand (when the rest of the story seemed perfectly clear) –but the author and I assume the editor and copy editor did, so obviously it was just me. Sometimes comprehension is a cultural issue, sometimes a mindset problem. This is one reason why using relatives as beta readers doesn’t always work, because they already know something about how the writer thinks and expresses herself and therefore may understand something others wouldn’t.

    Interesting post, Ally. I’m glad English is my native language.

    • allybroadfield

      Thanks for coming by, Barbara. Sometimes I come across something that doesn’t make sense to me and I have to reread it a few times to figure out what the author meant. It makes me wonder if others have to do that with my words. Good point about beta readers.

    • allybroadfield

      Thanks, Violetta! I do want to be super careful, but around the fourth set of edits or some, I’m afraid things start slipping through the cracks. 😉

  3. Gina Conkle

    Good morning Ally,
    Thanks for the smile this morning. I had a kick out of the “fiber” reference …since I get my share of interesting marketing material in the mail.

    • allybroadfield

      Glad you enjoyed it, Gina! It really freaked me out for a few seconds. In a way I’m lucky because my husband is ten years older than I am, and he’s been getting AARP stuff for years, but I wasn’t expecting to start getting that stuff yet. 🙂

  4. Patricia Denke

    I think it’s a yellow rubber duck but it might be one of those peeps ducks instead.

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  6. Jesica D. Okeefe

    You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but
    I find this matter to be really something that I
    think I would never understand. It seems too
    complicated and extremely broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

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