Simple sentence errors that reverse meaning

Last week, I was talking to a client about the way that simple errors – like leaving out one word – can change (or reverse) the meaning of a sentence.

His example was along these lines: ‘This letter is provided for information only, and should be seen to pre-empt the CEO’s decision’ (I’ve changed the sentence slightly to ensure anonymity).

This sentence misses the word ‘not’; it should read ‘… should not be seen to pre-empt the CEO’s decision’.

My client was concerned that this simple error is difficult to notice, but could have far-reaching effects – perhaps creating embarrassment or contractual difficulties for the organisation.

We all recognise these simple sentence errors, and we all make them (more often than we would like).

When writers check their work, they tend to see what they think they wrote, not what actually appears on the page or screen. People who are asked to check or approve documents often work quickly. Even with close reading, it’s difficult to spot a missing word.

The recipient of this letter may not notice the error, because, in this case, the structure of the sentence suggests that ‘not’ should be included (‘and’ is the signal, and it follows logically from the first part of the sentence).

My client’s conversation got me thinking that simply advising people to check their work carefully isn’t enough. As writers, we need confidence that the intention of our work will be clear, even when we make silly mistakes. Meaning shouldn’t rest on single words.

I suggest that writers should make sure that their message is carried by the overall tone and content of the document. In this way, a missing word might lead to questions, but won’t create complete misunderstanding. In addition, I suggest that critical points should never rest on the words ‘no’ and ‘not’.

Maybe my client’s sentence could have been written: ‘This letter is provided for information purposes only. The CEO’s decision will be announced on [state date].’

Another alternative might be: ‘This letter is provided for information purposes only, and is separate from the CEO’s decision. The CEO’s decision will be announced once the review process is complete.’