Ambiguous words

By | 2016/04/01

People like to use ambiguous words, because then it’s not necessary to say many details.

I remember that the senior colleagues and my bosses in my first job used many ambiguous words.

(Nonetheless, I somehow feel that ambiguous words are more common in Eastern Asia due to the cultural reasons.)

“properly”, “good”, “well”, “speedy”, “thoroughly”, etc.

In Japan, I heard “Let’s educate our sales reps thoroughly!”

And something like, “Please report, inform and ask for advice properly!”


They are good words to use for describing something subjectively or for sending out a rough message. However, if you want to give indication or instruction to others objectively, they would be confusing words.

What does “properly” or “well” mean?

For example, while building stair in a house, there will be height variation between each step. How would you define “building the stairs properly”? If the height variation is less than 1 centimeter, is it built properly? How about 1 millimeter? 1.5 centimeters? 2 centimeters?

How do you define ”well”?

For example, you are a sport coach and your trainee is going to attend a marathon.

If you tells your trainee “prepare for the marathon well!”, what does that mean?

Does it mean to sleep earlier the day before the marathon?

Or, does it mean to start jogging 1 year ago and practice running 5 days a week  and practice running 42 km every week from 5 months before the marathon?

If you think “definitely it would be the later one!!”, then I would say it nothing but your own thoughts.

What the listening person understood is EVERYTHING.

I keep trying to pay attention to these words.


I only use these kinds of words when I think it OK to allow the listening people imagine the meaning freely.

I try to avoid using these words.

Especially for indication or advice, these words are very confusing.

From the other side, if you got answers including these words, you need to be careful.

“Yes, I’ll go it properly”, what does this mean?

It’s difficult to know how much he/she will do.

“I’ll do it carefully”, what is “carefully”?

It’s still difficult to know.

So, if necessary, it maybe more effective to say concretely by using why, when, who, where, what and how.

(Of course, there are always uncertainty so many things cannot be described very concretely. Nevertheless, the point of this article is to pay more attention to those ambiguous words.)

See article in English list here

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