How to use detective skills to work out meaning
Photo: Sam Williams/Pixabay
“THE JOB IS CHALLENGING. But we have a good team. And we’re all trained to diffuse situations and contain physical outbursts.”
I received this exact message during the week from a nurse working in mental health.
Spot anything wrong with it? I’m not talking about the fact that she played down what is clearly an extremely difficult job. I’m talking about one of the words she used.
In case you missed it, what she meant to write was that all the staff are trained to ‘defuse’ situations. ‘Defuse’ means taking the sting out of a situation. Calming things down. Helping someone who is highly agitated to relax a little. That kind of thing. ‘Diffuse’, on the other hand, means to spread widely. And I know she didn’t mean the team is trained to spread an already difficult situation widely.
Even if I hadn’t known the meaning of the word ‘diffuse’, I think I’d still have been able to work out what she meant. I'd guess at least most of you understood the intended meaning of the whole sentence.
We’re helped a lot by the context. By knowing the meaning of the words around ‘diffuse’. They are our clues.
For example, we're told the job is challenging. This indicates that the writer may find herself in stressful situations.
We also know she’s not alone in those situations. She has a good team around her. And all the people in that team are trained to [defuse] situations and contain physical outbursts. Everyone there can manage a potentially difficult, physical situation.
The other information helps us work out the whole meaning, even if we couldn't define each individual word. Had the word 'diffuse' been replaced by a blank space, there’s still a good chance we could work out the meaning.
Even children can do this. Ask a 10-year-old to insert a word where a space has been left in a sentence. They may need a selection of words to choose from, depending on how tricky it is. But often, they can insert an appropriate word. A word that makes the whole sentence make sense.
Isolated words are harder to understand
So, we can often grasp meaning without knowing every word. If you pluck even a slightly unusual word from a sentence and ask someone to define it, they often struggle. Because an isolated word is harder to understand. Yet, pop it back into a whole sentence and they can often explain the meaning. Especially if surrounding sentences provide more clues.
This is similar to the way police detectives work. The more information they gather from a crime scene, the more likely they are to work out what happened, even though they weren’t there when it happened.
Short and simple
Flip this thinking around and we can see how important it is to know the meaning of every word in a very short piece of writing (because there are fewer clues to help us understand).
This is why, when writing an ad for, say, a billboard or bus shelter it’s even more important only to use words that at least most people understand.
Which is why I think simple words are best for short messages. Like this one.
Agree? Disagree? I’d love to know your thoughts.