Probably only physicists and writers pay attention to the warning stencilled on auto rearview mirrors: OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.
A physicist might observe that there is really nothing IN a mirror but molecules of glass and silver (or polymer and alloy). The images that APPEAR to be in the mirror (that actually appear to be behind it, as if the mirror were a window into a looking-glass universe) are virtual images, not real ones. A writer would note that the illogic created by the statement is due entirely to its awkward structure. It would take no more effort to say OBJECTS ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR IN MIRROR. It would take only one more word, “the,” to make the statement grammatically and logically correct.
News reporters regularly announce that someone has died of “an apparent heart attack.” Wrong! No one dies of an apparent anything. People die of real heart attacks and from disorders that have similar symptoms. If a heart attack is suspected, one might say, “Apparently, he died of a heart attack,” or “He apparently died of a heart attack.” After the autopsy, we’ll know for sure.
Carry this lack of precision to its illogical extreme (no extremes are logical). What fun defense lawyers could have at trial—“The victim died of an apparent gun shot wound? Maybe he’s only apparently dead.” Recently I heard a news reporter announce that the Indiana State Police were looking for an apparent sniper. I hope not. When someone’s shooting at motorists on an interstate, I hope the police are looking for a real sniper.
We all know what the reporter means, so why get your shorts in a bunch?
If you’re a writer you ought to be as incensed by a professional’s careless use of words as a carpenter would be if you drove a nail with a crescent wrench. You could force the nail in, but you would probably make a mess of the job. It would certainly mess up the wrench. Words are a writer’s tools. When we use them carelessly, we damage them. In Chicago, for example, the police routinely refer to suspects in custody as “gentlemen” (on camera. In private they call them assholes.). Would it be so much harder to say, “We believe we caught the offender,” or “We have an individual in custody”? It’s that OBJECTS IN MIRROR thing again. Calling someone a gentleman used to be a compliment. Now it’s an insult. And what word can we use for a man who’s considerate and polite?
It’s a tribute to the human brain that we can sort out intended meanings, however illogically presented. But we shouldn’t have to. Writers should write what they mean. Much of the trouble we have with others comes from misunderstanding, which is easier to avoid in conversation because body language fills in for unclear prose.
Fuzzy writing is indicative of fuzzy thinking. Unless you’re being paid to obfuscate, you ought to take pride in making your meaning unmistakable.