Friday, February 13, 2009

Nine words at Dunkin’ Donuts (1)

In the drive-through window of a Dunkin’ Donuts shop, I saw this sign: “Please ask if you need condiments for your order” [sic: no period].

I asked the cashier, “Do I need condiments for my order?”

The cashier asked, “What?”

In an amiable tone of voice I explained, “The sign says that I should ask if I need condiments for my order. So, I’m asking. Do I need condiments for my order?”*

She got it. She said, “Oh. The sign. Yes. It should say, ‘If you need condiments for your order, please ask for them.’ ”

Apparently, Dunkin’ Donuts employs at least one cashier who can think more clearly than one corporate bureaucrat can write.

That same nine-word sign also contains two other clarity errors. I’ll discuss them in future posts.

The Takeaway: Be careful to avoid ambiguity when using the conjunction if. See this usage note on using if “to introduce a clause indicating uncertainty after a verb such as ask, doubt, know, learn, or see…”

*My purpose was not to be a smart alec or to befuddle the cashier. It was merely to demonstrate that the sign is ambiguous: easily misunderstood. Remember, when you strive to write clearly, your goal is not only to help your readers understand you with little effort, but also to prevent them from misunderstanding you. You, as the writer, are responsible for identifying and removing ambiguities.

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