Ambiguity is most common problem in question wording. In fact, it’s an umbrella term that covers most of the problems in question writing. Some examples here will show the problem – and we’ll present some ways to avoid the problem.
And yes, the above image is real. It’s from a form to make an appointment for a Global Entry interview with a US Government agency.
Ambiguity: Define it Please
First of all, what do we mean by ambiguity? Ambiguity means the phrasing is unclear, vague, or open to multiple interpretations. Simply put, various people reading the question can read it differently and thus answer it differently. The heart of many a comedian’s jokes rests on that ambiguity.
Ambiguity in Data Collection Forms: What’s the Issue?
Our goal in capturing data, be it on a survey or a data collection form, is to gather data that accurately represents the viewpoint of the people completing the form. When the form has ambiguous terminology, then respondents aren’t sure what question they’re being asked.
Ambiguity in Data Collection Forms: Examples
One of my favorite ambiguous forms we may encounter when travelling internationally. You many have seen this question on the immigration form. In this case when I was traveling into Canada, but I’ve seen this on other countries’ forms.
Is a work computer a commercial good?
We probably all have a fairly consistent definition of a “weapon,” but what’s a “commercial good”? Folks who wrote the immigration laws know what they mean by that, but what does that mean to everyday people? They clarify – or attempt to – by adding the examples of “samples, tools, equipment”. Now I have to interpret those words!
First time I encountered this was on a business trip to Canada. I was carrying my work computer. Is that a “commercial good”? Isn’t a computer a type of “equipment”? (I had been employed by Digital Equipment Corporation.)
I made the mistake of answering “yes” that time. Boy, what a mistake. A deep interrogation ensued. I still don’t know what is – and isn’t – a commercial good, but I know that’s it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.
I’ve also learned on business trips to Canada to always add a day or two for sightseeing. The form also asks if you’re traveling in Canada for business or pleasure. A business response leads to interrogation; whereas, pleasure doesn’t. Canada doesn’t want Americans taking their jobs, but they want our tourist dollars. In this case, I’m leveraging the ambiguity.
Now, if they asked the “primary purpose” of the trip, then I’d be in trouble.
The question opens with a dependent clause (adverbial clause in this case). How would you answer this if you were NOT able to work from home, for example, a self-employed electrician? The Yes/No applies to the “voluntary decision”. You can’t just skip the question since it’s required.
This question begs for the dependent clause to be set up as a branching question.
Later, the form has truly bizarre phrasing that could only be written by someone, including the proof readers – if any — who have no concept of basic accounting. The state wants to know your income so it can determine benefits. Nearby is the question for this.
What is “Expenses minus tentative profit”?
First of all, “Income” is an ambiguous term. Yup. People who work for a company think of income as what’s in their weekly paycheck. For the self-employed, we have to get stricter with our terms. Companies generate revenue. Expenses are subtracted from revenue to arrive at income. (I’m keeping this simple; it’s actually more complicated.)
While I “deduct” expenses from my revenue, those aren’t “deductions” in the sense we use on tax forms.
But they help us out by pointing to the line on the tax form with the answer (Line 31 of Schedule C), right? Well, nearby is a screenshot from Schedule C.
Schedule C Net Profit Form
Line 31 is correct. That’s what they want us to report. I think. But the question throws in “Net Profit or Loss – Expenses minus tentative profit.”
I’ve been self-employed for 25 years. I have a masters and doctorate in business. I’ve taught in business schools for 30 years. I have no idea what “Expenses minus tentative profit” means. And neither does the person who wrote the question.
Line 31 is Tentative Profit minus Expenses. Yup, they got it backwards.
The question as worded stopped me in my tracks. I literally looked up Schedule C. I didn’t want to answer incorrectly since I’d be breaking the law. But the real crime is the incorrect question phrasing.
Yes, I understand this was all thrown together in a rush, but couldn’t someone have read it over? Hey, Commonwealth of Massachusetts; I’m up for hire!
Ambiguous Data Collection Forms: How to Fix it
How do we avoid the problem of ambiguous phrasing in forms and surveys?
Proofread, proofread, proofread. You no doubt have noticed I referred to proofreading. This should be obvious, but obviously it’s not. We should think about phrasing and pose a challenge: is there another possible interpretation for the way the questions are phrased?
Read it out loud. A tip for the question writer: Read the questions out loud word for word. Sounds silly, right? It is! (Get in a private room) But this process forces you to think about each and every word. Reading silently means we skip over words.
Proofread — by others. But others, preferably someone with editing experience, should also proofread both for 1) phrasing and 2) accuracy.
Be careful with examples. Sample questions above included examples. The examples lead the reader to think about those examples – and ONLY those examples. In my survey question writing, I avoid the Latin phrases “i.e., and e.g.” Those translate to “that is” and “for example, respectively. Yea, the abbreviations are shorter, but I find many people either don’t know what they mean or think that “i.e.” means “for example” and “e.g.” means “that is.” “Etc.” I think is okay to use.
Be careful with “fine tuning” a question. Many times, question writers add more verbiage to clarify a question, but the result is more confusion. I’ve seen this many times after a survey draft passes to the boss for input and approval. Phrasing gets added, many times to steer the respondent to the “right” answer. In the above example, the question writer added “Expenses minus tentative profit” to clarify. Boy, did that muddy the waters.
Test the question. Ideally, every survey or form should be “field tested” with some people who might be asked to complete the form. Ask them if anything is unclear. But more important, get the people to give you their interpretation of the questions.
A Final Example
Let me close with a favorite example of mine. Every time we visit the doctor’s office, we inevitably have to complete some form for some compliance reason. Every medical form has the question “Are you under a physician’s care?” – or something close to that.
What does “under the care” mean?
Well, what does that prepositional phrase, “under a physician’s care”, mean? That could mean:
Do you have a doctor?
Are you currently seeing a doctor to deal with some medical condition?
“Care” is a cute word upon which some form writer stumbled. It sounds good, doesn’t it? What I do to pass time in the waiting room is to ask the person behind the counter what the phrase means. Try that next time. See what you get for an answer – if you get an answer.
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