You've probably heard plenty of times that writing should be lean, mean, clear, direct, succinct, active, and so on. This is one of those self-evident truths—why would anyone set out to write any other way? But what does that really mean, what do sentences look like that are not that way, what sorts of things are wrong with them, and how do you fix them?
Sentences do have ways of becoming flabby, redundant, wordy, unclear, indirect, passive, and just plain old hard to understand. Even so, they remain grammatically "correct"—all their subjects and verbs agree, the commas are in the right places, the words are spelled correctly. Still, these sentences are far more difficult to read than any sentence with just a comma problem.
The following sections can't pretend to cover all of the ways sentences can go bad at this higher level, but they do cover seven of the most common problems and shows you ways of fixing them. And knowing these seven will probably enable you to spot all the others we have not trapped and labeled yet. Specifically, here is what is covered:
One of the big culprits that cause weak, indirect writing is the use of the be verb as the main verb. That's not to say that the be verb should never be used as the main verb, just that there are cases where doing so makes for weak writing. Look at the following examples of this problem—they are not that hard to spot. Then look at the revisions—notice how a noun (often one ending in -ion) has been converted into a verb. That's how to fix this problem—find a noun to convert into an active verb, and then rebuild the sentence upon it!
Problem: The contribution of Quality Circles is mostly to areas of training and motivating people to produce higher quality work. Revision: Quality Circles contribute to the training and the motivating of people to produce high quality work. Problem: Measurement of temperature is done in degrees of Fahrenheit or Celsius, and its indications are by colored marks on the outside of the thermometer. Revision: Temperature is measured in degrees of Fahrenheit or Celsius and is indicated by colored marks on the outside of the thermometer. Problem: The beginning of the clonic phase is when the sustained tonic spasm of the muscles gives way to sharp, short, interrupted jerks. Revision: The clonic phase begins when the sustained tonic spasm of the muscle gives way to sharp, short, interrupted jerks. Problem: During speech, the generation of sound is by vocal chords and the rushing of air from the lungs. Revision: During speech, sound is generated by the vocal cords and rushing air from the lungs. Problem: The response of the normal ear to sounds is in the audio-frequency between about 20-20,000 Hz. Revision: The normal ear responds to sounds within the audio-frequency range of about 20-20,000 Hz.
Another common sentence-style problem involves piling up nouns in a phrase. The effect is similar being hit in the head with a large blunt object. Again, take a look at the examples of this problem, which are also not hard to spot, and at the revisions. When you revise a "noun stack," you unpack or unstack the nouns into clauses and phrases:
Problem: There is a growing awareness of organizational employee creative capacity. Revision: Awareness of the creative capacity of employees in all organizations is growing. Problem: Position acquisition requirements are any combination of high school graduation and years of increasingly responsible secretarial experience. Revision: To qualify for the position, you'll need to be a high school graduate and have had increasingly responsible secretarial experience. Problem: The Quality Circle participation roles and tasks and time/cost requirements of Quality Circle organizational implementation will be described. Revision: The tasks of the participants in Quality Circles and the time and cost requirements involved in the implementation of Quality Circles will be discussed. Problem: Proper integrated circuit packaging type identification and applications are crucial to electrical system design and repair. Revision: Identifying the proper type of packaging for integrated circuits is crucial to the design and repair of electrical systems. Problem: Cerebral-anoxia-associated neonatal period birth injuries can lead to epileptic convulsions. Revision: Birth injuries associated with cerebral anoxia in the neonatal period can lead to epileptic convulsions.
Redundancy in writing can come about from these three sources (but there are probably plenty more):
- Wordy set phrases (where a 4- to 5-word phrase and be chopped to a 1- to 2-word phrase with no loss of meaning): for example, "in view of the fact that"—it can be reduced to "since" or "because."
- Obvious qualifiers (where a word is implicit in the word it modifies): phrases like "anticipate in advance," "completely finish," or "important essentials" are examples of obvious qualifiers—we know that already!
- Scattershot phrasing (where two or more synonyms are compounded): compounds like "thoughts and ideas" (what's the difference?) or "actions and behavior" (if there is a difference between these two, does the writer mean to use it?).
Here are some classic examples of wordy set phrases and their revision:
in view of the fact that since, because at this point in time then it is recommended that we recommend as per your request as you requested in light of the fact that since, because being of the opinion that I believe in the near future soon during the time that then it would be advisable to should, ought due to the fact that since, because in this day and age now, currently for the reason that since, because in my own personal opinion I believe,in my opinion to the fullest extent possible fully in accordance with your request as you requested four in number four predicated upon the fact that based on inasmuch as since, because pursuant to your request as you requested in connection with related to take cognizance of the fact that realize it has come to my attention that I have learned that with reference to the fact that concerning, about with regard to concerning, about in close proximity to near, close, about to the extent that as much as in the neighborhood of near, close, about until such time as until has the ability to can that being the case therefore
If you were around for Watergate, the term "expletive" means something specific to you (in the tapes and transcripts of Nixon's staff, many expletives had to be "deleted"). In this context, however, the term expletive refers to variations of there is and it is. This is not to say that it is always wrong to use these phrases in sentences, but they can easily be misused or overused. Like redundant phrasing, they add more words than are needed, and more words blunt the meaning, create a fog around the sense of a sentence. Here are some examples and their revision:
Problem: When there is a very strong build-up at the front of the plane, it is what is known as a shock wave. Revision: When a very strong build-up occurs at the front end of the plane, a shock wave occurs. Problem: When there is decay of a radioactive substance, there is the emission of some form of a high-energy particle—an alpha particle, a beta particle, or a gamma ray. Revision: When a radioactive substance decays, some form of a high-energy particle—an alpha particle, a beta particle, or a gamma ray—is emitted. Problem: It is the results of studies of the central region of the M87 galaxy that have shown that there are stars near the center that move around as though there were some huge mass at the center that was attracting them. Revision: Recent studies of the central region of the M87 galaxy have shown stars near the center moving around as though some huge mass at the center were attracting them.
One of the all-time worst offenders for creating unclear, wordy, indirect writing is the passive-voice construction. It's easy enough to convert a sentence from active voice to passive voice, and back again:
Active: The student wrote the report. Passive: The report was written by the student.
However, the passive voice can be a shifty operator—it can cover up its source, that is, who's doing the acting, as this example show:
Passive: The papers will be graded according to the criteria stated in the syllabus. (Graded by whom though?) Active: The teacher will grade the papers according to the criteria stated in the syllabus. (Oh! that guy...)
(It's this ability to cover the actor or agent of the sentence that makes the passive voice a favorite of people in authority—policemen, city officials, and, yes, teachers. But save that for some other course!) At any rate, you can see how the passive voice can cause wordiness, indirectness, and comprehension problems.
Passive: Your figures have been reanalyzed in order to determine the coefficient of error. The results will be announced when the situation is judged appropriate. Active: We have reanalyzed your figures in order to determine the range of error. We will announce the results when the time is right. Passive: Almost all home mortgage loans nowadays are made for twenty-five years. With the price of housing at such inflated levels, those loans cannot be paid off in any shorter period of time. Active: Almost all home mortgage loans nowadays are for twenty-five years. With the price of housing at such inflated levels, homeowners cannot pay off those loans in any shorter period of time. Passive: After the arm of the hand-held stapler is pushed down, the blade from the magazine is raised by the top-leaf spring, and the magazine and base Active: After you push down on the arm of the hand-held stapler, the top-leaf spring raises the blade from the magazine, and the magazine and base move apart. Passive: However, market share is being lost by 5.25-inch diskettes as is shown in the graph in Figure 2. Active: However, 5.25-inch diskettes are losing market share as the graph in Figure 2 shows. Passive: For many years, federal regulations concerning the use of wire-tapping have been ignored. Only recently have tighter restrictions been imposed on the circumstances that warrant it. Active: For many years, government officials have ignored federal regulations concerning the use of wire-tapping. Only recently has the federal government imposed tighter restrictions on the circumstances that warrant it.
Don't get the idea that the passive voice is always wrong and should never be used. It is a good writing technique when we don't want to be bothered with an obvious or too-often-repeated subject and when we need to rearrange words in a sentence for emphasis.
In dense, highly technical writing, it's easy to lose track of the real subject and pick a verb that just does not make sense. The result is a noun physically not able to do what the verb says it is doing, or some abstract thing performing something nitty-gritty real-world action. Here are some examples and their revision:
Problem: The causes of the disappearance of early electric automobiles were devastating to the future of energy conservation in the U.S. Revision: The disappearance of early electric automobiles destroyed the future of energy conservation in the U.S. Problem: Presently, electric vehicles are experimenting with two types of energy sources. Revision: Presently, research on electric vehicles involves two types of energy sources. Problem: Consequently, the body is more coordinated and is less likely to commit mental mistakes. Revision: Consequently, workers will be more coordinated and commit fewer mental errors.
When you are writing about highly technical subject matter, it is easy to construct long sentences that become hard to read. The military standard for many years has been 17 words per sentence. Other standards allow up to 25 words per sentence. It's not that sentences can't be significantly longer or shorter than these standards—it's just that the average ought to stay somewhere within the 17- to 25-word range. However, any sentence over 35 or 40 words probably needs to be broken up. And while an occasional short sentence (say, 5 to 10 words) can be very effective, lots of them can cause writing to be choppy and hard to follow.
Breaking up overly long sentences is fun—it's a lot like throwing things away or tearing something down (it appeals to our destructive urges). Take a look at these examples, before and after:
Problem: In order to understand how a solid, liquid or gas can be made to give off radiation in the form of a laser beam, one must understand some of the basic theory behind laser light. Revision: A solid, liquid or gas can be made to give off radiation in the form of a laser beam. Understanding this process requires some knowledge about the basic theory behind laser light. Problem: Laser beams, which have many properties that distinguish them from ordinary light, result from the emission of energy from atoms in the form of electromagnetic waves whose range in most laser beams is 10-3 to 10-7 meters. Revision: Most laser beams are just beams of light but which have properties that distinguish them from ordinary light. Laser beams result from the emission of energy from atoms to form of electromagnetic waves. The range of electromagnetic waves found in most laser beams is 10-3 to 10-7 meters.
Return to the table of contents for the Online Technical Writing Course Guide (the online textbook for online technical communication courses at Austin Community College and other institutions worldwide). This information is provided and maintained by David A. McMurrey. For information on use, customization, or copies, e-mail email@example.com.