FDA ear drop warning. This week’s “language acting badly”


My Wanted poster

The FDA updated its alert to consumers to “Use Only Approved  Prescription Ear Drops.” ear drop

The information is important for parents and caregivers.

Reading through the alert I went looking for a list of the prescription meds that were on the hit list.  Instead the only list is a list of the culprit ingredients.  OK  Got it!

But, it was the sentence that introduced the list that makes it this weeks winning example of “Language Acting Badly”

[from the FDA page]

Unapproved prescription ear drug products containing these ingredients are covered by FDA’s action:

  • benzocaine
  • benzocaine and antipyrine
  • benzocaine, antipyrine and zinc acetate
  • benzocaine, chloroxylenol and hydrocortisone
  • chloroxylenol and pramoxine
  • chloroxylenol, pramoxine and hydrocortisone

I have no doubt that consumers can MISREAD this list. It’s easy to interpret it as – if the product you have contains one of these ingredients, then the FDA “covers” it and it’s fine to use.

Why is this critical sentence so confusing?

  • Interrupting phrase: The intro sentence uses a phrase that interrupts and makes a critical elaborating of the main sentence “contain these ingredients”.
  • Passive verb (generally harder to read and understand who did what to whom): These ingredients are covered by” …..
  • Confusing reference: “FDA’s action” the reader won’t likely recall earlier information in the text (FDA is notifying companies to stop marketing 16 unapproved prescription drugs)  and therefore the reader won’t realize that as “the action” the sentence is referring to.

One Rewrite that could clear things up (there are certainly others):

Check the ingredients on the label.  If you see any one of the ingredients (below) the medicine is unapproved for ears.  This means the FDA does not approve this medicine for ears and you should not use it.  

So a critical sentence, that gives instructions to the consumer, needs to be clear and ambiguous.

It’s not.

And that’s why it’s our pick for this week’s – Language Acting Badly.


A note from Chris and the Lab’s team.





[As with all the examples we use here, no offense is intended. Honestly. (Believe me, we’ll make it clear if that is ever not the case)  Bottom line – at some point, we all write or design confusing messages that need some help.  If you don’t believe that, well, then …..you miss what we’re doing here at the Lab. Accept our apologies.] 

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