Avoiding Ambiguity

Dagmar   Cole
Dagmar Cole Business Analyst / Project Manager, Read Author Bio || Read All Articles by Dagmar Cole

I recently sent an email asking a simple question, but the response was so ambiguous as to be indecipherable. I responded by asking for specific points of clarification, and this was soon followed by an avalanche of emails from others criticizing the sender for inability to provide an answer. What was clear to the sender caused confusion among the readers. How does a Business Analyst avoid this situation and ensure their writing is not ambiguous?

Ambiguity occurs when a sentence can have more than one meaning. There are many types of ambiguity, but let us focus on the two major culprits: structural (grammatical) ambiguity and semantic (lexical) ambiguity.

Structural ambiguity occurs when the misperception is due to the grammatical structure of the sentence. Comedians often use structural ambiguity for laughs, but the confusion it causes is no laughing matter. Guilty parties are so accustomed to writing grammatical ambiguity they are not even aware of the vagueness. Consider this example I found in a requirements document:

New training and certification are required.

Although the BA who wrote this believed it was clear, it is ambiguous as to what is 'new'. Is new training required for existing certification, or are new training and new certification both required?

Semantic ambiguity occurs when more than one meaning can be assigned to a word. This is a common situation in the business world; how a word is used by one group has a different meaning for another group. Consider the example:

To place an order, a new customer must complete an application.

The terms 'new', 'order', 'customer', and 'application' are open to interpretation.

When beginning an elicitation meeting, I always ask the stakeholders to define common business words. During one session, the stakeholders — while irritated because I asked them to "define the obvious" — discovered the group had six different definitions for 'customer': Retail, Wholesale, Logistics, Business, Wireless, and Service. The key to avoiding these misinterpretations is to create a shared business vocabulary so everyone understands the common definition. When referring to 'customer', the noun is always to be delimited with an additional identifying term, such as 'Wholesale customer', so it is obvious which 'customer' is being referred to.

There is a technique available for developing explicit business rules and requirements. A short noun-and-verb construction is considered a wording: "a wording provides a building block for writing unambiguous sentences."[1] The sentence above can be improved by building on defined wordings so that, by providing additional terms and verbs, the sentence becomes precise:

A Retail customer who has not made a Retail order in the past twelve months must first complete the store credit application and be approved by a store manager before a Retail order can be started.

To learn more about how to write unambiguous sentences, I recommend reading Ron Ross' Business Rules Concepts, "Chapter 1, What You Need to Know About Structured Business Vocabularies."[2]

What Thomas Reid wrote in the 1700s[3] is as true today:

There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words.


[1] Ronald G. Ross, Business Rules Concepts, (Business Rules Solutions LLC, 2013), p. 15.

[2] Ronald G. Ross, Business Rules Concepts, (Business Rules Solutions LLC, 2013), pp. 11-22.

[3] Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man.

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Standard citation for this article:

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Dagmar Cole, "Avoiding Ambiguity" Business Rules Journal, Vol. 20, No. 2, (Feb. 2019)
URL: http://www.brcommunity.com/a2019/b981.html

About our Contributor:

Dagmar   Cole
Dagmar Cole Business Analyst / Project Manager,

Dagmar Cole has over twenty years of experience working in all facets of the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC). Her interest in applying quantitative management techniques to software began at George Mason University. While majoring in Decision Science, she published a paper on Software Quality Assurance. Later, she published her master's thesis in strategic information systems planning at Marymount University.

As a business analyst and project manager, Dagmar continues her quest to apply quantitative techniques to the SDLC. She is an active member of the Fort Worth Chapter of IIBA and was a speaker at the IIBA BBC 2015 conference. She also has extensive training in conflict resolution and is returning to the IIBA BBC conference in 2016 to discuss conflict resolution.

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