Sentence Clarity

   by: Professor Sharon Delmendo       Close Window    Print Page

Use Active Voice:

In college level writing, emphasis is placed upon the use of active voice, as opposed to the use of passive voice. Why? Because passive voice lacks clarity. Passive voice is the topic of a separate guide, Passive Voice Rules. Nevertheless, a brief illustration here will be helpful.

Active voice composition clearly indicates who performs the action (described by the verb). Passive voice composition is typically wordy and more complicated than active voice composition which also erodes clarity. In the example below, the to be phrase is indicated by italics.

General MacArthur was told that the Cabanatuan raid had been successful by General Krueger.

General Krueger informed General MacArthur that the raid on Cabanatuan succeeded.

In the first sentence it isn't clear whether General Krueger told MacArthur about the success of the raid or if he himself was successful in the raid. The second sentence makes clear that General Krueger told MacArthur about the raid's success.

Avoid Double-Negatives:

Multiple negatives can be difficult for the reader to follow. It's always better to use an affirmative form that to negate a negative. In the examples below, double-negatives are in italics:

In order to complete her homework, Katie couldn't do without the study guide.

Katie required the study quide to complete her homework.

After studying the financial reports she concluded that Acme Corporation wasn't any worse off than Peabody Inc.

After studying the financial reports she concluded that Acme Corporation was in the same financial position as Peabody Inc.

Here is a sentence culled from a popular media outlet that suffers from lack of clarity due to the use of negatives rather than affirmatives:

"Although the Ravens may decide against naming Jamal Lewis their franchise player, the team is still not willing to give Lewis a long term deal."

They could have said:

Ravens management has hesitated naming Jamal Lewis their franchise player and the team has witheld offering him a long term deal.

What is Familiar to the Reader?:

Readers need to connect with ideas and concepts that are familiar to them. If you introduce an idea that is known to your readers, and then connect that concept to a new one, the sentence will have greater clarity.

Have you ever felt lost when reading the text book in one of your technical courses, such as accounting? That's because the text describes terms and technical procedures that are unfamiliar to most of us. If you pick up a highly technical book about your favorite sport or recreation you don't feel lost because you're already familiar with the topic. If something is familiar to the reader it is easier to understand.

A skillful sentence should introduce familiar ideas and then link them to new ideas that advance the argument.

Big Box retail stores, like Wal-Mart and Target [familiar businesses], benefit consumers with lower prices [familiar idea] at the expense of limited selection and lower quality of merchandise [new ideas].

"This [new: picture of a sporty compact car] is not your father's Oldsmobile [familiar: picture of an old family sedan]."

The sentences below are not as clear, nor are they as persuasive, as the sentences above:

Retail shoppers suffer from poor selection and quality.

This is today's hot new car [picture of a sporty compact car].

Put Subordinate Clauses Up Front:

See also the Comma Splice guide sheet for detailed definitions of independent clause, dependent clause, and subordinate clause. In brief, an independent clause can stand on its own as a sentence, because it contains a noun, a verb, and expresses a complete thought, while a subordinate clause contains a noun and a verb but does not express a complete thought, it depends upon the independent clause for the completion of the thought.

It can be confusing when the subordinate clause follows the main clause. Therefore it is often best to put thesubordinate clause up front. In the examples below, the subordinate clause is identified by italics:

Worms and spyware are a growing problem because more and more people are transacting business over the internet, resulting in an economic impact.

Because more and more people are transacting business over the internet, the economic impact of worms and spyware is growing.

The first sentence left it unclear why worms and spyware were mentioned at all and implied that the economic impact is a consequence of more and more people doing business over the internet; that was not want what was intended. The second sentence clarifies that worms and spyware are having an economic impact due to the increase of business being conducted over the internet, which is what was intended. It is also easy to see, in the second sentence, that "Because more and more people are transacting business over the internet," is not a complete thought in itself and depends upon the independent clause to complete the thought.

Don't Dangle Modifiers:

Don't get hung-up on the terms because this topic is very similar to the one above about subordinate clauses. Consider the following sentence:

After completing the paper that was due, Jack opened

After completing describes an action but not the entity performing the action, which is Jack. By now it should be clear that the phrase "After completing the paper that was due" is a subordinate clause because it does not express a complete thought and will therefore depend upon the main clause for the completion of the thought. Along with that, since the entity, "Jack," that was performing the action, "After completing," was left unclear, that entity must be identified in the main clause. If the doer is not identified then the subordinate clause, which modifies the main clause, is left dangling and that's why it's known as a dangling modifier. Consider the following:

After completing the paper that was due, was brought up on the computer.

Who brought "it" up? Certainly "" didn't bring it up, nor "the computer." In the second sentence the subordinate clause, also known as a modifier, is left dangling.

Let's consider the following examples:

Dangling (who completed?): After completing the homework assignment, it was time to party.

Improved (Keira completed): After completing the homework assignment, Keira was set to party.

Dangling (who reviewed?): Having reviewed the evidence, the argument is weak.

Improved (I reviewed): Having reviewed the evidence, I find the argument to be weak.

Modifiers can also appear at the end of sentences, although we prefer to put subordinate clauses up front. Consider:

Dangling (who didn't read?): The investment strategy tanked, not having read the financial statements.

Improved (Tiffany didn't read): Tiffany's investment strategy tanked, not having read the financial statements.

Note that had the sentence been modified as:

Dangling (who didn't read?): The investment strategy tanked, Tiffany failed to read the financial statements.

The subordinate clause was elevated to an independent clause and what we're left with are two sentences spliced together with a comma, a comma splice. The "doer" is always identified in the main clause and this illustration is another example as to why it's best to put the subordinate clause up front.

Don't Misuse Nouns:

One common practice in spoken language is the use of nouns where a verb would be more direct. This erodes clarity. For example (the "noun" is in italics):

The interruption of the speech wasted a great deal of time.

The speech was interrupted and that wasted a great deal of time.

The first sentence indicates that "the speech wasted a great deal of time" while the second sentence indicates that the interruption wasted the time. Interruption is a noun and interrupted is a verb.

Another misuse of nouns is stringing them together. For example (noun string shown in italics):

Acme improved earnings by leveraging core synergistic business competencies.

Acme leveraged their core competencies to create synergy, leading to higher productivity and improved earnings.

Much of our language employs catch phrases and buzz words. The business press is an especially good place to find these confusing strings of nouns that, taken out of their original context, can leave the reader confused. Consider your audience when writing. If the possibility exists that the audience is unfamiliar with catch phrases or buzz words particular to a given profession seek greater clarity by breaking apart the strings of nouns.

Use Pronoun Referents Properly:

For an explanation of this topic, see the worksheet on Pronoun Referents.

Key Techniques for Sentence Clarity:

See also the Sentence Fragment guide sheet and the Comma Splice guide sheet.

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