I illustrate with two jokes, but here’s the lesson: Be sure your readers know where you’re coming from. I remember a quip used in religious circles: A text out of context is a pretext. But that’s not one of the two jokes.
Joe: A WAVE is a person in the Women’s auxiliary of the navy, right?
Moe: Um, yes, the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, back in WWII, yes.
Joe: And a WAC is in the Women’s Army Corps, right?
Joe: Then what’s a WOC???
Moe: Hmm. I give up.
Joe: A WOC is what you thwow at a wabbit!
You remember that one from Bugs Bunny, right? Here’s the other one. (It works better if you say it rather than read it. Try it on some all-knowing teenager.):
Joe: How do you pronounce M, A, C, D, O, N, A, L, D?
Moe: MacDonald, the guy who had a farm.
Joe: How about M, C, H, E, N, R, Y?
Moe: Well, McHenry, like the historic fort in Baltimore.
Joe: Then how do you pronounce M, A, C,-, H, I, N, E?
Moe: Hmm. Mack Hiney? Mac Hein?
Joe: Nope! Machine!
I’d tell a third joke, but I might be endangering Joe’s life. Anyway, you can see how setting up a misleading context directed the victim’s thinking down the wrong trail. Here’s a longer version of the advice at the top of this post:
When you proofread your material, think of ways it might be misunderstood, and prevent it.
Of course sometimes it is the reader’s fault: