Misunderstanding the Written Word

Back on June 8, I wrote “Barriers to Effective Communication,” attempting to look at some things that get in the way in relationships, business, and writing.

I’ve continued to reflect on this topic, particularly with regard to the written word. Not only in books and articles, but also in our emails and social-media posts.

Author Intent

Have you ever been upset by an email from a colleague? Or from a friend? Or a spouse or family member? Of course we have.

I came across a fascinating look at “authorial intent” in a recent book Church Doctrine & the Bible by David Instone-Brewer (Lexham Press, 2020). His context was to introduce the challenge of biblical interpretation by making a parallel to our written words:

It is actually impossible to know … what the author was thinking about and intending to convey in their writing…. You can mistake irony for plain speech, misunderstand who or what they are talking about, interpret advice as criticism, or even misunderstand the meaning of a word – for example, “that’s incredible” (“amazing” or “unbelievable”?), “that’s confusing” (a reference to what they describe, or the way they’re describing it?), “How much?” (“too much” or “too little”?)…. When you add  the fact that an author is from a different family and area, possibly from a different culture, language, country, religion, and time period, there are so many possibilities for misunderstanding that some have concluded we can never be sure what the author meant (pp. 4-5).

Chew on that for awhile, and think of the times where you reacted strongly to something you read.

Reader Understanding

We often read meaning into words that isn’t there. That last kerfluffle with your spouse or relative? Did they really say what you heard? Fortunately, there is something called forgiveness!

In the study of literary criticism, there is something called the “Reader-Response” theory, whereby each reader can read the same material but understand it or absorb it differently. It’s one reason why two people can read the same novel and one thinks it’s trash and the other thinks it is brilliant. Which one is right? Could it be both?

On a side note, this can be rather theological in that it is one way that God meets a reader where they are. That unique connective space that the reader and writer alone (with God’s help) meet. I see a wonder here, a divine mystery. Sort of the “how” writing reaches past the intellect and to the heart. The same way God meets us intellectually (via assent), as well as emotionally/spiritually (via repentance) and practically (via holiness).

Grace Is the Solution

The beginning of understanding is to first check the anger at the door. Of course, there is a place for genuine outrage. At the same time, don’t take offense when a colleague was merely expressing how they felt about having to complete that task by 5 pm today when it’s 4:45 pm. They aren’t necessarily upset at you personally, but at the situation and its demands.

At the same time, it is critical for your emotional and spiritual health to respond properly to bad reviews or harsh criticism of your book or article. Our initial reaction is to take it as a personal attack.

Grace is the solution! Giving benefit of the doubt is a wonderful starting point.


23 Responses to Misunderstanding the Written Word

  1. Avatar
    Shirlee Abbott July 20, 2020 at 5:01 am #

    When my job included taking minutes at multiple monthly meetings, I kept a sign in my office, “If it can be misunderstood, it will be misunderstood.” As I chose the words for every discussion and every action taken, I’d ask myself if someone could take those words the wrong way and miss the original intent. It was hard to keep my personal opinion from distorting the factual summary of a heated discussion. Little did I know then that the discipline of getting the minutes “just right” would later equip me to make every word count as I write my blog and my book.

  2. Avatar
    Damon J. Gray July 20, 2020 at 6:21 am #

    Often there is a story we do not know, or a reality we are not taking into account. Just yesterday, I asked Alean twice if she was upset with me. Eventually I figured out that she simply was not feeling well, and that resulted in her interacting differently than normal.

    A great danger to effective communication is the presumption(s) I bring to the conversation.

  3. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser July 20, 2020 at 6:33 am #

    There was anger in your face,
    and present in your words withal,
    but might there have been some kind of grace
    in your usage of “Neanderthal”?
    I know you well, and thus I doubt
    that you meant just what you said
    when, foam flying, you did shout
    something ’bout “Old Wooden Head”,
    and I also shall let pass in deference
    what in other context surely shocks;
    in this I make specific reference
    to “dumber than a box of rocks”,
    but from all this, I guess you’re wishin’
    that I not work on Harley in the kitchen?

    • Avatar
      Colleen Snyder July 20, 2020 at 7:26 am #

      I love this!!

    • Avatar
      Damon J. Gray July 20, 2020 at 9:16 am #

      HA!! Okay, I admit to busting out a laugh with the Harley in the kitchen.

      Weren’t you once building a plane in the living room?

    • Avatar
      Shirlee Abbott July 20, 2020 at 9:46 am #

      Not in my kitchen! Not unless you intend for me to cook from the seat of the Harley (mine is a cozy kitchen).

    • Avatar
      Dale July 20, 2020 at 12:30 pm #

      Hahaha, well said.

  4. Avatar
    Rachel July 20, 2020 at 6:54 am #

    I really enjoyed this post. I think it’s more and more important for our society to be more cognizant of this and that starts within us. Thanks for the perspective and the challenge.

  5. Avatar
    Bryan Mitchell July 20, 2020 at 7:04 am #

    “Gentle Reminder, please complete my request at your earliest convenience. I need it by the end of the day for an important meeting.”

    I run into this type of message almost daily at my job. My team doesn’t see these as gentle reminders. Maybe if we responded with a parable on patience or something regarding the early bird-worm relationship, we’d come to a meeting of the minds. Then again, such advice may seem insulting and patronizing. But if we added a gentle reminder tag in front of it, they’ll see it less critically, less harshly.

    “Gentle reminder, the early bird gets the worm.” Hmmm, maybe not.

  6. Avatar
    Roberta Sarver July 20, 2020 at 7:14 am #

    Damon, in the above comment, has a good point. Our presumptions often cause serious problems. So can their cousins, the surmising family. Your advice, Steve, is helpful. Thanks.

    • Avatar
      Damon J. Gray July 20, 2020 at 9:18 am #

      Yup! Surmising and presuming – almost always asking for trouble.

  7. Avatar
    Colleen Snyder July 20, 2020 at 7:33 am #

    Grace. Amazing grace. Much harm and heartache can be avoided by the old “read it back to them” approach to communication. “Did I hear you say you wanted the report by 5 p.m. today?” “Did you mean to say I’m (borrowing from Andrew) “dumber than a box of rocks”?” Asking for clarification (especially in discussions) goes a long way to avoiding “You said…” I once called a friend, “Woman” and she went ballistic on me. In her culture, that is the lowest of insults. When I understood that, I apologized and let her know the intent was in friendship, not insult. Clarification. Harder in the written word, but looking at what we write and saying, “Could this be misinterpreted” can prevent many an argument or battle.

  8. Avatar
    Kay DiBianca July 20, 2020 at 7:38 am #

    I am part of an email loop that explored this exact topic recently. Speaker says “A”, but the listener interprets it as “B” resulting in confusion and misunderstanding. When someone mentioned “actions speak louder than words,”, I came to realize that we who write fiction have a distinct advantage in communicating a message.

    Although I’m writing my cozy mysteries with words, I’m “showing” through my characters’ actions. I can even convey the characters’ thoughts and intentions to the reader. Although a reader may or may not like the story or the message, it’s doubtful they would misunderstand it.

    Beyond its entertainment value, then, fiction has a unique power to convey a message and change the world.

  9. Avatar
    Tom July 20, 2020 at 8:56 am #

    In business, I learned long ago, the hard way that emails and texts are seldom read as they are written and always like- that in mind when writing or reading.

  10. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. July 20, 2020 at 9:22 am #

    Steve, when I was an undergraduate back in 2001-2006, one of my professors said that the meaning was in the reader and that the reader’s opinion, not the author’s, was the only opinion that counted. As a nontraditional student, I questioned him but never got any real satisfaction. I thought that was a bunch of hogwash, personally. What are your thoughts?

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube July 20, 2020 at 9:36 am #


      That is a good question. It is a philosophical one that also has theological implications.

      If meaning is ONLY in the mind of the reader, this can suggest there isn’t Absolute Truth. Truth is then defined by each person individually, which gets us to our Modern world of no absolutes.

      At the same time, from a lesser understanding we must be prepared and know that words are understood by the reader and applied to their context. In a narcissistic way we ask “what’s in this for me” when we read something.

      Thus I disagree with your professor’s overstatement because of its ultimate danger with regard to Truth with a capital T. (God’s Truth is not at risk from the interpretation of a reader.)

      But as a writer I would keep in mind the reader and craft your words in a way that confronts their thinking and helps them move toward Absolute Truth, no matter how they initially interpret those words.


  11. Avatar
    Sharon K. Connell July 20, 2020 at 9:42 am #

    Great advice, Steve.

    In my emails, etc., I try hard to check for things that could be misinterpreted. The emoticons are a great help to let the reader know what your mood is when you make a statement. 🙂 But the best thing to do is read it over, more than once. It helps to find errors in the text as well.

  12. Avatar
    Floyd July 20, 2020 at 9:59 am #

    Thanks Steve,

    Authorial intent and what is known in theological terms of “reader-response” (as you pointed out) have been with us since Jesus walked the earth and taught it. I am glad you brought these up once again. They adjust our way of reading the Bible (and other literature).

    The last item of which you speak, grace, is a given truth and attitude adjustment that acts as an instruction corrective while the other two are fundamental hermeneutical principles. At times, when we screw up on the hermeneutics, we can get the grace part wrong and turn it into Law…and the claws come out.

  13. Avatar
    Kathy Steinemann July 20, 2020 at 10:07 am #

    Thanks, Steve. I see this all the time.

    Does “before” mean “prior to” or “in front of”?

    Does “around” mean “approximately” or “in a circle”?

    Context makes a huge difference, but sometimes it’s not enough.

    I find that putting writing away for a few days or longer and then reading it out loud helps to pinpoint the problems.

  14. Avatar
    Ellen Engbers July 20, 2020 at 1:53 pm #

    So true!!
    Thank you 🙂

  15. Avatar
    Norma Brumbaugh July 21, 2020 at 1:44 pm #

    This made me think of the ease in which writer intent is misconstrued in social media communications. It can get quite nasty. The temptation to set people straight wherever we think they are mis-led, uninformed, or wrong is a real constant. Our viewpoint sees fallacies in others’ conclusions so much so that we may feel compelled to address their posts with a pushback counter message. However, I don’t think that works very well. It is seen as unloving or even disrespectful of the message and messenger. That’s where grace comes in. Grace, graciousness, and the act of extending grace in our communications keep us from the arrogant know-it-all response (that the world hates). Spiritual writers have more at stake in this. Once you offend someone they don’t hear another word you say. Grace goes with ‘speak the truth in love.’ I know this is a little off track but I feel better having said it. There’s so much hateful messaging going on right now. I appreciate grace being brought into the conversation. We earn the right to be heard.


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