Improving Sentence Clarity
There are many strategies for improving the clarity of your sentences and your papers.
Go from old to new information
Introduce your readers to the "big picture" first by giving them information they already know. Then they can link what's familiar to the new information you give them. As that new information becomes familiar, it too becomes old information that can link to newer information.
The following example sentence is clear and understandable because it uses old information to lead to new information:
Here is a sentence that is not as clear. It moves from new information to old information:
Did you find the second sentence hard to read or understand? If so, it could be because the old information comes late in the sentence after the new information. A clearer version that moves from old information to new information might look like this:
There are many words in English that cue our readers to relationships between sentences, joining sentences together. See the handout on Transitional Devices (Connecting Words). There you'll find lists of words such as however, therefore, in addition, also, but, moreover, etc.
I like autumn, and yet autumn is a sad time of the year, too. The leaves turn bright shades of red and the weather is mild, but I can't help thinking ahead to the winter and the ice storms that will surely blow through here. In addition, that will be the season of chapped faces, too many layers of clothes to put on, and days when I'll have to shovel heaps of snow from my car's windshield.
Be careful about placement of subordinate clauses
Avoid interrupting the main clause with a subordinate clause if the interruption will cause confusion:
Clear (subordinate clause at the end):
Clear (subordinate clause at the beginning):
Not as clear (subordinate clause embedded in the middle):
Use active voice
Sentences in active voice are usually easier to understand than those in passive voice because active-voice constructions indicate clearly the performer of the action expressed in the verb. In addition, changing from passive voice to active often results in a more concise sentence. So use active voice unless you have good reason to use the passive. For example, the passive is useful when you don't want to call attention to the doer; when the doer is obvious, unimportant, or unknown; or when passive voice is the conventional style among your readers.
Not as clear (passive):
Use parallel constructions
When you have a series of words, phrases, or clauses, put them in parallel form (similar grammatical construction) so that the reader can identify the linking relationship more easily and clearly.
Not as clear (not parallel):
In the second sentence, notice how the string of "things to be aware of in Florida" does not create a parallel structure. Also, notice how much more difficult it is for a reader to follow the meaning of the second sentence compared to the first one.
Avoid noun strings
Try not to string nouns together one after the other because a series of nouns is difficult to understand. One way to revise a string of nouns is to change one noun to a verb.
Unclear (string of nouns):
Avoid overusing noun forms of verbs
Use verbs when possible rather than noun forms known as "nominalizations."
Unclear (use of nominalization):
Avoid multiple negatives
Use affirmative forms rather than several negatives because multiple negatives are difficult to understand.
Unclear (multiple negatives, passive):
Choose action verbs over forms of to be
When possible, avoid using forms of be as the main verbs in your sentences and clauses. This problem tends to accompany nominalization (see above). Instead of using a be verb, focus on the actions you wish to express, and choose the appropriate verbs. In the following example, two ideas are expressed: (1) that there is a difference between television and newspaper news reporting, and (2) the nature of that difference. The revised version expresses these two main ideas in the two main verbs.
Unclear (overuse of be verbs):
Avoid unclear pronoun references
Be sure that the pronouns you use refer clearly to a noun in the current or previous sentence. If the pronoun refers to a noun that has been implied but not stated, you can clarify the reference by explicitly using that noun.
This, that, these, those, he, she, it, they, and we are useful pronouns for referring back to something previously mentioned. Be sure, however, that what you are referring to is clear.
Unclear (unclear pronoun reference):
Unclear (unclear pronoun reference):