Sentence Style and Clarity Help
Using Active Verbs
Too many passive (nonactive) verbs definitely block clarity. Passive verbs always contain a form of to be such as is, was, were, and been.
- Muddled: A survey was taken of all board members by the governance committee.
In the preceding sentence, the nonactive or passive verb was buries the subject, governance committee. Why not start the sentence with the subject, the governance committee, and follow that with the active verb took? The passive verb was is a form of to be—delete it. What did they take? They took a survey (object).
- Clearer: The governance committee took a survey of all board members.
- Even clearer: The governance committee surveyed all the board members.
- Muddled: A free book program is offered by the bookstore.
Why not give credit where it is due? Find the buried subject. Who offers the program? The bookstore. What is the action form of the verb? Offers. Notice the passive verb is—a form of to be. What does the bookstore offer? A free book program.
- Clearer: The bookstore offers a free book program.
- Muddled: A survey was taken of the townspeople by the town council.
Again, what is the buried subject? The town council. What is the action form of the verb was taken? Took. What did the town council take? A survey.
If for some reason the writer does not want to emphasize the subject in the reader's mind, then a passive or nonactive verb works very well. In the following sentence, no one takes the blame for tabling the vote because the bill is the subject. Notice the verb was, a form of to be:
The bill was tabled by a 3-to-1 vote.
If you reread the previous improved sentences, you'll see that eliminating passive or nonactive verbs uncovers the subject and clarifies the sentences.
As you read earlier, you may have a reason to use nonactive or passive verbs on occasion. If, however, you write ten sentences, all with passive verbs, you can probably change seven or eight to active verbs. Why should you take the time to do that? The answer is clear: Passive verbs contribute to the fog in anyone's writing. They also contribute to the following:
- Passive verbs add unnecessary words to sentences.
- Passive verbs make sentences harder to understand.
- Passive verbs hide subjects.
We can prove all of these assertions.
- Read the following sentence. Change the passive verb to an active verb, and remove two words.
- In the next sentence, find the hidden subject and change the passive verb to an active verb.
- In the last sentence, find the buried subject and select an active verb.
In the next chapter, the family dynamics are explained.
It has been determined that we will bid on that job.
It was argued strongly that making cars more efficient was the committee's first concern.
Did you change the sentences in the following ways? Answers may vary.
- The next chapter explains the family dynamics.
- We have decided to bid on that job.
- As a first concern, the committee argued strongly for more efficient cars.
Placing Important Information Last
Placing important information last also promotes clarity. You probably recall learning this in Chapter 8. Here's another way to think about introducing important ideas in sentences: Start with what your reader already knows, and then add the new information.
Each year, the growing season ends [old information], and I'm left with barrels and barrels of tomatoes [new information]. These red, ripe beauties [old information] are luscious to behold, but how many pots of tomato sauce can I cook and store [new]? As it is, jars of tomato sauce [old] threaten to take over all my freezer space [new].
Using Verbs Instead of Nouns
Clear sentences avoid "smothered verbs." Smothered verbs occur when we string noun phrases through our writing. Often the phrases start with the word have or the word make. You're sure to recognize these phrases:
- make a recommendation
- make a suggestion
- have knowledge
- have an objection
Find the buried verb in each of the following sentences:
- I will make a recommendation that we skip our vacation this year.
- I have no knowledge of his skills.
- The judges have an objection to your uniform.
Let's look at how to change the noun recommendation into a verb:
- I recommend that we skip our vacation this year.
In the next two sentences, change knowledge to know and objection to object.
- I don't know about his skills.
- The judges object to your uniform.
These simple changes bring your verbs into the open and make your sentences so much clearer.
Smothered verbs appear in many other ways. Hundreds of other expressions exist that use do, reach, give, and many others. For example:
- do an inspection
- hold a meeting
- furnish an explanation
- reach an agreement
Avoiding Unclear Pronoun References
Unclear pronoun reference leads directly to lost clarity. Every pronoun needs an antecedent, which is a noun or noun phrase it can point to.
- Muddled: Bob told the service representative his phone was not working.
Whose phone was not working? The sentence does not answer that question. We're trained to assign the pronoun (his) to the closest logical noun—representative in this case—but that's not necessarily what the writer meant. Instead, the phone might belong to the subject, Bob.
- Clearer: Bob told the service representative that his, Bob's, phone was not working.
Sometimes rewriting the sentence is the better, clearer thing to do. That may entail dropping the pronoun in favor of a noun.
- Muddled: Jen dropped the laptop computer on the glass-top desk and broke it.
What broke, the computer or the glass-top desk? What does it refer to?
- Clearer: Jen dropped the laptop computer on the glass-top desk and broke the glass.
- Clearer: When Jen dropped the laptop computer on the glass-top desk, the glass broke.
Placing Descriptive Words Correctly
If at all possible, place a descriptive word or phrase next to the word it describes. Misplacement of descriptive words and phrases results in confused meaning.
Muddled: The elderly man relaxed after years of hard work on his porch.
Did the man really do all those years of hard work on his porch? Probably not, but that's what the sentence states. Undoubtedly, the sentence meant to state that the man relaxed on his porch after years of hard work. On his porch describes relaxed, telling where the man relaxed.
Corrected: The elderly man relaxed on his porch after years of hard work.
Muddled: Established employees who talk about the past constantly overawe new employees.
Did the employees talk constantly about the past? The correction comes when you move the descriptive word, constantly, next to the word it describes, that is talk.
Corrected: Established employees who talk constantly about the past overawe new employees.
Deleting Unnecessary Words
How many times have you heard or read this classic example of repetition in a sentence:
- My friend, he eats a huge lunch and then an even larger dinner.
Which word do you need to delete? Of course, the answer is he. The pronoun just repeats the subject, friend, and for no reason.
Here is another frequent error:
- My reason for ordering in dinner is that I thought we would have more time to talk.
My reason…is that is the unnecessarily wordy version of the following:
- I ordered in dinner so that we would have more time to talk.
In addition, when your aim is clarity in writing, you need to weed out vague, overwritten phrases.
- We need a course in effective communications.
Did you mean clear writing? Then say it! We need a course in clear writing.
- In some offices, there are equipment malfunctions. In my office, there are only clogged printers.
Other vague, overused phrases include:
- financial resources for money
- inclement weather conditions for rain, sleet, snow
- human resource development for training
- banking facility for bank
- retail facility for store
In addition, vagueness in writing persists because we insist on overqualifying terms. If something is clear, is perfectly clear clearer? No. Why not just drop the overqualification perfectly?
Here are more examples of imprecise overqualifications. How would you simplify them?
- He utterly rejected my proposal.
- The route drawing was quite precise.
- My computer is radically new.
- We thought their solution was quite imaginative.
- My dog is completely devoted to the children.
You probably realize that the overqualifications—utterly, quite, radically, and completely—add little meaning. Delete them!
Another obstacle to clarity is using wordy expressions instead of a single word. What one word can you substitute for these phrases?
- as of this time
- at this time
- at the present time
- at present
- our current belief is
- at this point
- after further consideration
- at this point in time
- upon further reflection
By the time you finished reading this list, it probably occurred to you that all the expressions referred to now. Any one of these expressions might be avoided by using the simple word now:
- Wordy: At this time, we're not hiring.
- Clearer: We're not hiring now.
Look at the other wordy expressions that substitute for the word then:
- during the past
- at that date
- up until that time
- at that time
- at that point
- in that period
- at that point in time
- during the past
- as of that time
Did you realize that using the word then could substitute for any of the expressions?
- Wordy: In that period, we read all the child-rearing books we could find.
- Clearer: Then we read all the child-rearing books we could find.
- Wordy: As of that time, we started toilet training children at a year old.
- Clearer: We started toilet training children at a year old then.
Correcting Illogical Statements
Check the logic of the following sentence:
- Most of the days of our vacation were cloudy, but we went boating or swimming.
Logic would dictate that you went swimming despite the clouds! How can you say that?
- Most of the days of our vacation were cloudy; yet, we went boating or swimming.
Writing Balanced Sentences-- A Reminder
A balanced sentence contributes to clarity because related ideas, actions, and descriptions take the same form. When a sentence flows smoothly from beginning to end, it is balanced.
Remember that clarity relates to accessibility. When a sentence lacks balance, it is clearly not as accessible to the reader. At the least, unparallel sentences almost always force a reader to reread the sentence. How accessible are the ideas in the following sentences?
- The candidate thanked them for their loyalty, dedication, and because they were willing to work overtime.
In this sentence, you read the two nouns, loyalty and dedication (objects of the preposition for), and you rightfully expected a third one. But it's not there. Instead, the writer switched to a clause, because they were willing to work overtime. How can you take the idea of that clause and change it to a noun? Try this:
- The candidate thanked them for their loyalty, dedication, and willingness to work overtime.
As you can see, changing the verb were willing to the noun willingness restored parallel form to the sentence.
Now turn from nouns to adjectives, and see how they are written in parallel form.
- Incorrect: My new computer is faster, more powerful, and it's more flexible.
- Correct: My new computer is faster, more powerful, and more flexible.
Changing the clause, and it's more flexible, to a one-word adjective, flexible, restores parallel form to this sentence.
Find the errors in the following sentences:
- The website said that the program taught tennis, swimming, and how to row a canoe.
- This week the family will wash the windows, rake the leaves, and they'll take the time to clean the garage.
- Today I have a parent-teacher conference, a planning meeting at work, and I will cook dinner for company.
- Ellen thought the movie was boring, childish, and was too long.
- I kneaded the dough, prepared the wet ingredients, and then I remembered to turn on the oven.
Your answers should have included these words (or similar parallel choices):
- and rowing
- and clean the garage
- and a dinner to cook for company
- and too long
- remembered to turn on the oven
To sum up, when you list ideas, items, or actions, the list elements must be all nouns, all infinitives, all prepositional phrases, all gerunds, or all clauses.
Using Prepositions Correctly in a Series
Finally, prepositions also need to introduce words in a series correctly. When prepositions are used incorrectly, a lack of parallelism results. For example:
- There are meals in the morning and noon.
The way it is written, this sentence actually says that there are meals in the morning and in the noon. The preposition is in. Is this the correct word for each item? No, it should be in the morning and at noon.
Some words and verbs use prepositions as well. Look at this example:
- The cancer researcher is interested and excited about the new advances in medical technology.
What are the words in the parallel structure? They are interested and excited. The researcher is excited about the advances. This use of the preposition about is correct. What about interested? Does about go with interested? Test the phrases:
- excited about the advances…? Correct.
- interested about the advances…? Incorrect.
The correct preposition to use with interested is in. Therefore, the earlier sentence is incorrect. The correct preposition must be used with each item of a parallel structure. The following is correct:
- The cancer researcher is interested in and excited about the new advances in medical technology.
Common Verbs and Adjectives with Prepositions
- agree with
- apologize for
- apply for
- apply to
- approve of
- argue for
- argue with
- arrive at
- arrive in
- be absent from
- be accused of
- be accustomed to
- be acquainted with
- be addicted to
- be afraid of
- be angry at
- be angry with
- be annoyed at
- be annoyed with
- be associated with
- be aware of
- be capable of
- be cluttered with
- be committed to
- be composed of
- be concerned about
- be connected to
- be content with
- be convinced of
- be coordinated with
- be covered with
- be crowded with
- be devoted to
- be disappointed in
- be disappointed with
- be discriminated against
- be divorced from
- be done with
- be dressed in
- be engaged to
- be envious of
- be equipped with
- be excited about
- be exhausted from
- be exposed to
- be faithful to
- be familiar with
- be filled with
- be finished with
- be fond of
- be frightened of
- be friendly to
- be friendly with
- be frightened by
- be furnished with
- be gone from
- be grateful for
- be grateful to
- be guilty of
- be innocent of
- be interested in
- be involved with
- be jealous of
- be known for
- be limited to
- be located in
- be located to
- be made from
- be made of
- be married to
- be opposed to
- be pleased with
- be polite with
- be prepared for
- be prepared to
- be proud of
- be qualified for
- be related to
- be relevant to
- be responsible for
- be satisfied with
- be terrified of
- be tired of
- be upset with
- be used to
- be worried about
- believe in
- blame (someone) for
- compare to
- compare with
- complain about
- complain of
- consist of
- contribute to
- count on
- count upon
- decide on
- decide upon
- depend on
- distinguish from
- dream about
- dream of
- escape from
- excel at
- excel in
- excuse for
- feel for
- fight for
- forgive (someone) for
- have a reason for
- have an excuse for
- hide from
- hope for
- insist on
- introduce to
- keep (someone) from (doing something)
- look forward to
- object to
- participate in
- pray for
- prevent (someone) from (doing something)
- prohibit (someone) from (doing something)
- recover from
- rescue from
- respond to
- stop (someone) from (doing something)
- succeed in
- take advantage of
- take care of
- talk about
- talk of
- thank someone for
- think about
- think of
Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at: Sentence Style and Clarity Practice
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