Clear sentences must have a sound structure. As has been pointed out in previous posts, short, simple
sentences and short, common words, enhance the effectiveness of a paragraph. Your writing will be streamlined
even further and your writing will be even clearer if you follow the natural word sequence of English speakers – “subject-verb-object -” as closely as possible. Keep subjects and objects close to their verbs. Putting modifiers, clauses, or phrases between any of these essential parts of a sentence will make it harder for the reader to understand you.
Holders of common stock will be entitled to receive, to the extent money is available, a cash payment, as set forth in the accompanying schedules.
Cash distributions will be made to holders of common stock on the payment dates indicated in the accompanying schedules, if cash is available.
However, sloppy word placement even in a short sentence can cause ambiguity. The following sentence makes it appear as if the writer has decided to be disabled:
Ambiguous – If you are determined to have a disability, the company will pay you according to the schedule set forth below.
Clearer – If the company determines that you have a disability, it will pay you according to the schedule set forth below.
Also, strive for consistent sentence construction. Uneven sentence construction will lead to unclear writing. A common form of mixed sentence construction is use of two negatives in the sentence. Use of the so-called double negative destroys the orderly construction of the sentence and marks you as an uninformed writer.
For example, a company manual might provide as follows on the subject of extra vacation pay:
No approval of extra vacation pay may be implied in the absence of express approval from the company.
It is clearer to say,
You must obtain express company approval for extra vacation pay.
Wrong: I haven’t got nothing to say about it.
Right: I don’t have anything to say about it.
Wrong: He can’t write no better now than he could then.
Right: He can’t write any better now than he could then.
Wrong: He couldn’t hardly run a step.
Right: He could hardly run a step.
Wrong: Your invitation cannot at no time be accepted.
Right: Your invitation cannot be accepted at any time.
Introducing yourself to, and using, personal pronouns, will substantially improve the quality of your writing, no matter what the level of sophistication of your reading audience may be. Pronouns help your readers relate better to your writing by visualizing themselves in the text.
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Ed.), defines a pronoun as “any of a small set of words in a language that are used as substitutes for nouns or noun phrases and whose references are named or understood in the context.” The noun it replaces is called the antecedent. Thus, in the sentence, gold is not only a rare metal, but it has become a symbol of wealth, gold is the antecedent of it.
As a reminder, the most common types of personal pronouns include I, you, he, she, it, we, and they. Pronouns can vary in person (first, second, or third) and in number (singular or plural). Why use them? Even with a knowledgeable reader, use of personal pronouns will dramatically improve the clarity of your writing. They will,
– help keep sentences short and concise
– provide the information your reader wants to know in a logical order
– determine who made the statement in question, or who is responsible for the action.
Pronouns also aid the reader in understanding your writing because they eliminate ambiguity and minimize abstract language by encouraging the use of more concrete, everyday words. They also help to lock in reader interest by allowing you to “speak” directly to your reader and specify exactly who is being addressed. Remember that you are speaking to the one person who is reading your document, even though it may affect the public at large. For example,
You should carefully review your ballot before voting,
is clearer and more definite than,
The ballot should be carefully reviewed before voting.
Use of personal pronouns may also avoid the awkwardness of the he/she dilemma.
I saw Ken and Linda at the ballpark today and bought them each a hotdog,
is better than,
I saw Ken and Linda at the ballpark today and bought him and her a hotdog.
You must provide the requisite information, including name, address, and telephone number, when replying,
is better than,
The addressee must provide his or her name, address, and telephone number when replying.
Good teachers should not lose their tempers,
is better than
A good teacher should not lose his or her temper.
Use of the pronoun in the foregoing examples eliminates confusion and allows the sentences to flow more smoothly.
All of the clear writing information posted on this and previous blogs on this site is contained in my book, “The Art of Clear Writing,” which is available at amazon.com/kindle or in print. Check out my website at www.agregardie.com for further information.
Copyright © 2013. Arnold G. Regardie. All rights reserved.