Clear and coherent writing: sentences

Writing should essentially be about making meaning. This requires precision, clarity and conciseness and predictability. A reader should at no stage be speculating or guessing what you may mean.

Material should be written so that it can be easily be followed. Someone outside your field of research should be able to understand the story you are telling, even if the details remain obscure.

If you are told that your writing is not clear, here are a few things to look out for:

Use of jargon

Academic writing tends to be full of jargon. Some of the jargon may be necessary for precision. Problems arise when people try to sound academic using jargon that is not useful and using complicated sentences that obscure meaning. In general, try to avoid using words that you have not yet made part of your active vocabulary.

When using jargon as keywords make sure you keep using the same keywords. Do not change them as this may confuse a reader.

Noun-pronoun agreement

Pronouns include who, his, he, hers, she. These are personal pronouns used to refer to people. The impersonal pronouns it, its, for objects are used for both people and objects.

A common cause for unclear writing is an unclear use of pronouns.

Look at the following example:

Alysa opened the book with the drawing, put her glasses on her nose and invited her to admire it.

Pronouns are an invitation for readers to pick up the first possible noun used before. In this case the pronoun ‘it’ should logically stand for ‘nose’. But to a reader this may not make sense, forcing the reader to attempt a guess. In your writing, you should leave no doubt as to what the pronoun stands for. In academic writing there is no place for guesswork. A reader should never have to guess anything.

Unclear use of pronouns can lead to confusion. What, for example, is meant in the following sentences?

He told the receptionist his phone was not working

The outlines should not be distributed to the students before they have been approved

Exercises:  Test yourself and get some practice by doing the exercises available on http://chompchomp.com/exercises.htm

Misplaced modifiers

A modifier is a word, or group of words, that describes another word and makes its meaning more specific. For a modifier to be clear it has to be next to the word it modifies. If it is not, the result is often nonsensical.

The ice-cream man sold some ice-cream with a white hat.

William looked at wedding dresses shopping on Sunday.

In your won writing, misplaced modifiers may not have the same funny results – but can just lead to ambiguity and misunderstanding.

The placement of modifiers can sometimes also change the meaning of a sentence.  Check subtle differences in meaning in:

They almost worked five years on that system

AND

They worked almost five years on that system

——————

They just wanted a 30 days extension

OR?

They wanted just a 30 days extension

———————

The student association wants to buy the company’s assets

Only the student association wants to buy the company’s assets

The student association want to buy only the company’s assets

The student association only wants to buy the company’s assets

(Examples adapted from Weiss, 1990)

Exercises

Test yourself and get some practice by doing the exercises available on http://chompchomp.com/exercises.htm

Avoid ambiguity: using participles

Participles are verbal forms used as an adjective and which modify a noun.

For example:

While walking down the road, a bush caught Lee’s attention.

How would you make the text clear?

Concision

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words and a paragraph no unnecessary sentences. Every word in a sentence must have a role to play. Avoid words that do not add meaning or are repetitions.

Do not add words that do not add meaning: delete needless modifiers. Check use of terms such as quite, very, extremely, basically, essentially, totally, completely, at the present moment in time? Do you need them? Are you repeating something you already said? For example a complete stop: a stop is a stop, it cannot be incomplete…Other repetitions include [adequately] enough; [end] result; [joint] cooperation; [true] facts.

Do not add words that do not add meaning: delete unneeded pronouns.

There are a number of examples to support this. Why not just write  a number of examples support this?

It is this element that confirms it. Why not  this element confirms this?

Do not add words that do not add meaning: that and which.

The products which are described in the catalogue have been ordered – the products described…

The girl claimed that it would take a long time –  the girl claimed it would…

She said that she did not want to come – ….

John promised that the proposal would be finished by Friday – ….

Are you using expressions such as quite, very, extremely, as it were, moreover, it can be seen that, it has been indicated that, basically, essentially, totally, completely, it should be remembered that, it should be noted that, thus, it is imperative that, at the present moment in time. If you are check whether you may be using extra words tat do not really add meaning to your text. If you are, take them out.

Do not add words that say the same thing twice

Expressions such as at this point in time, he is the person who works hard, the roof is red in colour, water is a vital essential for life, repeat again, refer back, consensus of opinion, visible to the eye, complete stop, entirely complete, exactly alike, a new innovation, precisely the same, this is past history are unneeded repetitions. In each of these the same thing is said twice. Avoid doing this.

Parallelism

Sentences which provide lists of things that have the same importance need to be written in the same grammatical form. For example:

Research students have to learn maths, statistics,sampling methods and how to analyse data.

The sentence should read

Research students have to learn maths, stats, sampling methods and data analysis.

Exercises: complete exercises on http://chompchomp.com/exercises.htm#Parallel_Structure to see how well you are doing.

Sentence length

Long sentences (27+ words) are important for expressing complex ideas and illustrating connections among ideas. Having the odd long sentence here and there is not a problem. But if all your sentences are long, you make your text harder to read. Sentences are units of meaning – try to have one idea in one sentence. If you tend to write long sentences check  1. How much information is in each sentence? and 2. Are you using too many words that do not add meaning? Then try to cut the sentence by separating units of meaning.

Good writing tends to use a variety of sentence lengths. Including short sentences (20 – words) helps ensure clarity

Starting a sentence

Think about how you start sentences. The first words tend to make strongest impact, so it is best to start with most important information.

If possible avoid to start a sentence with something like ‘there is…” as in for example There are a number of examples that support this. You are wasting a very importance sentence part on ’empty’ words.

Verbs – use verbs to show action

Put action into verbs, avoid nominalisations. A nominalisation refers to the adding of a suffix (-tion, -ism,..) to an adjective, verb or noun to create news words, complex words. In many cases, the language is made more complex without added benefit in meaning. Explanations are given in the following video:.

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Beware of nominalisations by Helen Sword

 

Verbs – do not split infinitives

Example: Instead of Alice seems to always go there, write Alice always seems to go there. Write to eat quickly (not to quickly eat), to turn slowly (not to slowly turn), to argue loudly (not to loudly argue).

Testing for clarity

The best way to test clarity is to:

  • speak your text – read it and say it loudly
  • get someone to read your text
  • try a readability test: http://read-able.com/ is a free to use test which combines a few existing tests. Note however that the test focuses on sentence length, complexity of words etc but not internal logic of meaning.

Exercises

For more exercises on sentence use try http://writing.engr.psu.edu/exercises/

References

Weiss, Edmond H. (1990). Writing remedies. Practical exercises for technical writing. Oryx Press (UC Library PE1413 W515 1990)

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