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Clear and Simple Sentences

Here are some guidelines:
  • Don't overload sentences.
  • Use active sentences.
  • Keep sentences short.
  • Keep sentences simple.
  • Avoid ambiguity in your sentences.
  • Emphasize the positive.
  • Avoid double negatives.
Good writers build ideas from sentence to sentence. The simple, declarative sentence is the easiest way to process information. Sentences that differ from that simple structure may cause readability problems.

Write in the active voice
If you leave out the subject, the sentences are harder to understand. Using the active voice clarifies the sentence and the readers' understanding.

Instead of:
Citizenship cannot be renounced merely by making a personal declaration to this effect.
You cannot renounce your citizenship merely by making a personal declaration.

Instead of:
In early April, all applications will be reviewed by the committee.
The committee will review all applications in early April.

Keep it Short
Readers can only take in so much new information at one time. Some people recommend that sentences should average 15 words in length and that no sentence should be longer than 25 words. This rule is not hard and fast, however. Readers can understand longer sentences if they are well constructed and use familiar terms. A variety of sentence lengths make your writing most interesting.
Instead of:
This policy does not appear to be well understood by line management in the region, even though this group has primary responsibility for implementing the policy.
The regional managers who are most responsible for carrying out this policy do not seem to understand it well.

Instead of:
The parameters of your responsibility are included in the job description you received on your initial day of work at the association.
Your responsibilities are listed in your job description. You received your job description the first day you worked here.

Link your ideas
Don't shorten sentences by leaving out words such as that, which, and who. Use these words to link the ideas in a sentence and make the meaning clearer for your reader.
Instead of:
The driver of the truck passing by told the officer in the cruiser the car he saw hit the little girl in the intersection was red.
The driver of the truck told the officer in the cruiser that as he was passing by, he saw a red car hit the little girl in the intersection.
Avoid ambiguity
When a pronoun is used there should be no doubt as to which noun it represents.
Instead of:
Michelle researched and wrote the speech herself, which everyone thought was impressive.
Everyone was impressed with the speech that Michelle researched and wrote herself.
Adverbs and adverbial phrases also need to be placed properly to avoid confusion. If improperly placed, the adverbs only, even, both, merely, just, also, mainly, in particular and at least can cause confusion.
Instead of:
Supervisors and staff are required to both participate in orientation sessions and department seminars.
Supervisors and staff are required to participate both in orientation and in department seminars.
Emphasize the Positive
Positive sentences are inviting and encourage people to read on. Negative sentences can seem bossy or hostile. They can cause your readers to mistrust your words and often discourage people from reading on.
Instead of:
If you fail to pass the examination, you will not qualify for admission.
You must pass the examination to qualify for admission..
However, negative phrasing is appropriate for emphasizing dangers, legal pitfalls, or other warnings. You can also use negative phrasing to allay fears or dispel myths.

Avoid double negatives
It isn't enough to remember that a double negative makes a positive. We avoid writing, "I don't know nothing about it," if we mean that we know nothing about it. But, watch out for two or more negative constructions in a sentence.

Instead of:
He was not absent.
The procedure will not be ineffective.
It was never illegitimate.
He was present.
The procedure will be effective.
It was always legitimate.
Avoid unnecessary preambles
Unnecessary preambles can weaken or hide the point they introduce.

Here is a list of some unnecessary preambles:

  • It is important to add that...
  • It may be recalled that...
  • In this regard it is of significance that...
  • It is interesting to note that...

Try This

Review the following sentences. Identify the problem or issue from the point of view of clear and effective sentences. Then, rewrite the sentence.
  1. Illiterate adults are not able to read most work written for adults. Most illiterate adults are, however, adult thinkers. Nevertheless, they are often unable to carry out democratic tasks like voting. They are, however, fully capable of making decisions required for such tasks.
  2. It is hoped that this directory will provide a valuable resource for all our business people.
  3. At the same time, the economic approach pursued by this study to highlight the importance of volunteer work does not imply that organized volunteer work should be regarded as a commercial economic activity, as this term is normally not misunderstood.

Other resources online:

Writing User-Friendly Documents
(U.S. National Performance Review)
"Use Short Sentences"
"Use Active Voice"

A Crash Course in Plain Language

Q:Isn't writing that is made up of only short sentences boring to read? Won't it sound too choppy?

A:Yes. The point is to use shorter and simpler sentences more often than long, complex ones. Obviously you will want to adjust your sentences so that they flow easily.