Have you ever read a sentence and inferred a meaning that wasn’t intended? Have you ever written to someone in an innocent way and been bewildered by the response?

Bewildered by the response.

This problem – common to the English language, with its double-entendres and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nuance – has only been exacerbated by modern media, with its preference for elliptical sentences.

Not that we’re wishing the quirks of English away: dull would be a language that did not feature subtleties, sarcasm and hidden meaning. Without it, comedians from the Two Ronnies to Frankie Boyle would be denied a rich vein of humour.

But for the writers of copy, great care must be taken.

Below are examples of investment writing that seem to obfuscate rather than clarify.

  • In a June 2013 piece in The Economist, one nameless scribe wrote: “holdings of peripheral eurozone government bonds can be gently unwound by letting them run off.” The more financially attuned reader would probably understand the intended meaning: that the bonds in question are being left to run to maturity without being sold or renewed. But for many, the image of bond certificates in running shoes gently jogging away from the situation might be difficult to shake! A less ambiguous re-write might be: “Holdings in peripheral eurozone government bonds can be reduced by not renewing them upon their maturity dates.”
  • “The US Federal Reserve is committed to further rate hikes”. Do we mean the Fed has irrevocably pledged the US economy to further tightening come what may? Or does this mean (more likely) that the central bank would like to embark on further rate hikes, if conditions allow? Different readers may draw different conclusions from the sentence as it stands. If the more likely meaning is accepted, then a better phrasing might simply be: “The US Federal Reserve is likely to increase rates further”.

There are also plenty of examples where the wrong spelling of a word can cause havoc to the meaning. Homophones are those tricky words that sound the same or are very similar yet which have distinct meanings:

  • “The CEO has a number of discreet choices which he can make”. As it is written, it means that the CEO has clandestine choices he can make, and that he will most likely make those choices on the quiet. However, the author presumably meant to use the word “discrete”, meaning distinct or separate, which radically changes the meaning of the sentence.
  • Also beware or at least be aware of contronyms. A contronym is that innocent word that just happens to have two contradictory meanings. Suppose you read the following: “There is evidence that Donald Trump will sanction some of Russia’s overseas policies”. Does the use of ‘sanction’ mean that Donald Trump will endorse Russia’s overseas policies, or does it mean that he will boycott them? A reader could assume either meaning.

In all of the above cases, there is sufficient nuance or room for the meaning to be taken in another way from that which is intended.

Alan Greenspan, the erstwhile former US Federal Reserve chairman, was a master of obfuscation, and it was through him that the phrase, “Fed-speak”, was coined. Take this example from the Federal Open Market Committee meeting minutes of July 2005:

Risk-takers have been encouraged by a perceived increase in economic stability to reach out to more distant time horizons. But long periods of relative stability often engender unrealistic expectations of it[s] permanence and, at times, may lead to financial excess and economic stress. (Alan Greenspan, testimony on his 35th appearance before the Financial Services Committee of the US House of Representatives on July 20, 2005).

A peerless gymnast.

While some uncharitable souls might suggest that clarity might not have been Greenspan’s overriding priority, using such verbal gymnastics in commentary runs risks of its own – not least sowing seeds of doubt in the minds of investors. Had we been asked, we might have offered Greenspan the following alternative:

Investors in risk assets are looking longer term due to increasing economic stability. The inherent danger in this is that investors assume perpetual economic stability, which can in turn sow the seeds of a future bubble.

  • Watch out for exuberant turns of phrase. Though it might be tempting to garnish dry-sounding reports with flashes of colour, they can easily prove distracting or, worse, misleading.
  • Beware of words or phrases where meaning can be misinterpreted, such as homophones and contronyms. These can easily slip in to the text unintended, which is why the next point is so important.
  • Do not write, review, edit and send. Where possible, write, review, edit, review, review again (preferably a day later), and only then send. Much can be gained from reviewing text again with fresh eyes (or even better, with another’s eyes!) and reading with the audience in mind. Does the text convey the ultimate message or purpose? Could any of the words be misconstrued or create a contrary meaning or impression? Is there clarity?

No one said writing copy was easy. But getting the basics right provides the ideal platform for building a solid piece of commentary, editorial or reportage. To this end, especially when it comes to financial writing, choosing clear, lucid words is an essential first step.

Mike McNaught-Davis

Mike McNaught-Davis

CFA holder and one-time fund manager and financial marketer, Mike now lends his exceptional talents to Copylab's Edinburgh team.
Mike McNaught-Davis