Before speaking or writing anything, always stop and consider how your words may sound to someone else. You should figuratively hold your words up to a mirror to mimic what various state DMVs will literally do with proposed letter combinations for personalized license plates. Do that to test your words. Will people know what you mean or will they misunderstand because your words or phrases lack clarity? To show you the kind of confusion that could be caused when you fail to test your words, I’m going to provide three examples, including one from my own writing.
Several years ago, I had flowers placed in my church in memory of my brother, Edward, who passed away at the age of 20. It was coming up what would have his 32nd birthday. So here is the piece I had the church secretary print in the bulletin for that Sunday: “The flowers today were given in memory of Edward Mitchell, by Terry Mitchell, on the occasion of his 32nd birthday.” I should have at least written the words down before dictating them verbally over the phone to the secretary. Do you see the problem? That’s right, some people mistakenly thought it was my birthday, and it was my fault that they misunderstood. I should have rearranged a few of the words to be more clear as follows: “The flowers today were given by Terry Mitchell in memory of Edward Mitchell, on the occasion of his 32nd birthday.” Now that’s a lot better, as you can obviously see.
But stuff like that can happen even to an experienced columnist. Several months ago, I noticed a slip-up by nationally syndicated columnist Tina Dupuy. In an op-ed piece about a deeply religious couple who refused to seek medical treatment for their children, Dupuy seemed to indicate that one of their children died twice. She wrote that, due the parents’ refusal to take a sick child to the doctor, “… one of their children, for the second time, died …” While most people probably understood that a different child died this time, she phrased her words in a way that sounded like the same child died again. What she probably should have said is that “… another one of their children died ...” Tina should have held that particular column up to a mirror before submitting it for the world to read.
Then there was recent case of local TV reporter not really thinking about how her words might sound. She was reporting on a story about an autistic boy who was assaulted in school by one of his teachers. Anyway, she blurted out that “A teacher assaulted a boy with autism.” Really? I don’t think I would want to be assaulted with autism. I’d rather be assaulted with a stick or something. You might think I’m trying to be funny here – and you would be right – but this reporter’s words came out as intentionally funny. If she had given her words little more thought, she probably would have said something like “A teacher assaulted an autistic boy.” It would be hard to make jokes about that.