I was in my dentist’s office the other day getting my teeth cleaned (no cavities by the way!), and I had to use the restroom. As I stood there, I saw this sign right above the toilet that said, “Please Flush Only Toilet Paper.” The note was signed, “Thank you, The Plumbing” (though I feel certain it was actually written by dental staff).

Now, I had reached over to flush the toilet but then, suddenly, I wasn’t sure I was supposed to, because here was this big, prominent sign telling me only to flush toilet paper – and, for my purposes, I hadn’t needed any toilet paper.

I’m also aware of the growing movement now sweeping the country where people are asked, in the interest of water conservation, not to flush the toilets every time. Basically, the belief is that it’s a big waste of water to flush the toilet every single time unless there is solid waste.

I thought this new sign in the dentist’s office restroom might be an attempt at a nice way of saying that. You know – “Only flush if you used toilet paper.” However, on the other hand, I couldn’t imagine I was supposed to not flush a public toilet before exiting the restroom.

I was confused about what I was supposed to do. There were several possible meanings I could think of for the sign, but the two main ones were:

(1) Only flush if toilet paper was used in your action.

(2) Flush every time as always, but don’t flush paper towels because they will jam up the plumbing.

After thinking about it quite a bit, I decided that, while the water-saving, only-flush-if-you-have-to movement is getting very big these days, there was no way that, in a public place, a business had adopted that policy, no matter how much they wanted to save the planet.

I wasn’t 100 percent positive what to do but here was my thinking in the end: I decided that, if the sign was telling me (1), and I guessed wrong, no harm would come out of it (other than the lost water and the strain on the plumbing). On the other hand, if it was telling me (2), and I guessed wrong, then I was suddenly the highly inconsiderate guy who somehow didn’t know you were supposed to flush after you used a public restroom. I didn’t want to leave and have the next person announce to everyone in the office that Scott Yost of the Rhino Times doesn’t flush public toilets after using them.

So I flushed, but I also took a picture of the sign for further consideration.

This incident got me thinking about “ambiguity” and all the times that it makes us have to stop and think. I remember one time years ago, back when people were still allowed to smoke in public, and I was at a restaurant in Burlington, and they had this big sign that said “No Smoking Area.”   I just looked at it and looked at it and I still to this day don’t know if that meant there was no smoking area anywhere in the restaurant or if it meant that smoking was allowed in most of the restaurant but, in that particular area, no smoking was allowed. Now, years later, I’m still wondering about it.

Google’s online dictionary has a pretty good definition of ambiguity. It is “the quality of being open to more than one interpretation; inexactness.” Some synonyms are “vagueness, obscurity, abstruseness, uncertainty; double meaning; formaldubiety,” (Nope, I’ve never heard of that either).

Now, many times, it’s no big deal.

At other times, it’s just funny. Like the poorly worded ad in a newspaper long ago that said, “For sale: an antique desk suitable for lady with thick legs and large drawers.”

Or this sign in an Oregon store that I like: “Why go elsewhere and be cheated when you can come here?”

Sometimes ambiguity can cause a scare. Recently, when someone fraudulently charged nearly $200 to my debit card, I anxiously checked the bank’s debit card fraud policy and I saw the section was titled, “Zero Liability Protection.” I was like, OK, that’s just fantastic: Someone is draining my checking account and I have absolutely zero liability protection.

Writers and editors have to worry about ambiguity all the time, but it’s crystal clear that not everyone does. However, we should all get in the habit of hunting it down and eliminating it because sometimes it can be a gigantic problem that leads to disaster. Even when we allow seemingly small infractions, we are starting down a slippery slope the camel can get his nose under, causing the dam to burst and creating a huge butterfly effect.

I’ve lost many valuable hours of my life – we all have – because of one particular insane practice that makes no sense whatsoever. It is one of the things that drives me crazy – the unnecessary ambiguity in gift card codes because the makers feel compelled to use the number zero and the letter 0 in long strings of random numbers.

There are nine other numbers and 25 other letters you could use besides zero and 0, and the last place you would ever want to use either of those is in a completely random string of letters or numbers. Right?  So there’s no reason in the world why anyone should ever use a zero or the letter 0 in a gift card code. But still, the code on every card is like “X346P0L60G0700I. Are they zeros or the letter 0? Speaking of which, is that a one on the end or an I? Think people.

I have a credit card that I’ve been using for a long time but, until last week, had never cashed in any of the rewards. I realized I could get $750 in Amazon gift cards, but I had to get it in denominations of $25 cards. So I ordered them and they came and the other night I started to enter the code for 30 gift cards in a row on my Amazon account. I said to myself, “If they have a bunch of zeros and 0’s I am going to freak out.”   But not in any of the 30 cards did they use a zero or the letter 0; so I think the gift card people are finally getting a clue. However, it was simply nothing short of idiotic for them to have continued that practice for three decades until now.

Moving up the scale, ambiguity can even be deadly in some cases. One of my favorite examples was the giant problem one time years ago when the wording in a nuclear reactor operators’ manual stated, “You can’t put too much water in a nuclear reactor.” Does that mean no matter how much you put in there you don’t have to worry about it because you can’t put too much in no matter what? Or does it mean, be careful, you better not put too much water in a nuclear reactor. I can’t remember if that example was from an actual nuclear plant disaster or a Saturday Night Live skit, but either way it makes my point.

There are also several stories from the American court system of “million dollar commas” – where a comma or a missing comma cost a company dearly because of the change it created in the meaning of a contract. So let’s try to get some clarity in the language, people. The world is a confusing enough place as it is without us adding yet more confusion to it.

I’ll leave you this week with one example that pertains to the life and death business of commercial air travel. This is from a British Airways memorandum, quoted in the December 1996 issue of Pilot Magazine. I think this passage has not just two possible meanings, but 15 or 16 …

“The Landing Pilot is the Non-Handling Pilot until the decision altitude call, when the Handling Non-Landing Pilot hands the handling to the Non-Handling Landing Pilot, unless the latter ‘calls go around,’ in which case the Handling Non-Landing Pilot continues handling and the Non-Handling Landing Pilot continues non-handling until the next call of ‘land’ or ‘go around’ as appropriate. In view of recent confusions over these rules, it was deemed necessary to restate them clearly.”