Mirror, Mirror …


When we look into the mirror, we see ourselves as others do, right? With that cryptic hint as your guide, find the clarity problems in the following sentences.

1. Having perused several evaluations of the latest vacuum cleaners, I think I’ve made my choice.

2. Once the speaker’s opening observation drew a huge laugh, it was downhill from there.

3. Jody began the meeting by saying she wanted to throw out a few of the suggestions she’d received for refining the marketing plan.

Just as mirrors give us the opposite image of what we look like to others, a few words and phrases in our language have meanings that contradict each other.

1. The actual meaning of “peruse” is “to read closely,” but it is commonly used as a synonym for “scan.” So did I narrow my vacuum cleaner decision by reading casually or intently?

2. “Downhill” can translate as the negative “down the tubes” or the positive “coasting.” Did the speaker falter after her strong opening or keep the audience in her hands?

3. When we “throw out” an idea, are we offering it for discussion or rejecting it before it’s had a chance to fly?


Words like “sanction,” which can refer to permission or a penalty, are called contronyms (also spelled “contranyms”). Fortunately, we don’t have many in our language, and when we do use them, the context often makes clear what we mean, but not always. So it behooves us to be aware of words that fall on this short list. 

In addition to presenting workshops on writing in the workplace, Norm is a writer, editor, and writing coach. His 100+ Instant Writing Tips is a brief “non-textbook” to help individuals overcome common writing errors and write with more finesse and impact. Learn more at http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml.  

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