Clarity

Who are the agents and what are the actions? Does the syntactic structure make the prose feel connected?



Introduction to Clarity: Agents and Action

Readers expect to understand what they read. They shouldn't need to ask, "Who is doing what"? If our sentences do not describe action, our readers may lose interest in what we have to say. Difficult language and tangled sentences are the enemies of clarity.

A. At least a mile away, the sirens were heard by me.

This isn't something you would encounter in everyday English. It isn't "bad" English, and we understand what it says, even though its words are arranged in an order that does not occur naturally in speech. The opening phrase, "At least a mile away," gives us little useful information. It floats at the beginning of the sentence without identifying any clear agent or action.

B. I heard the sirens when I was at least a mile away.

This sentence begins by identifying the speaker: "I." From the beginning, we know that there is a person, and we can reasonably expect to be told more about this person. The word immediately following "I" does just that: "heard" tells us what the speaker did. The sentence moves directly from agent to action, and the order of the words is intuitive and easy to speak aloud.

The difference between Sentence A and Sentence B is clarity. Sentence A arrives, in a roundabout way, at the character and action expressed at the beginning of Sentence B. There are other ways to rephrase the sentence if we want to privilege the phrase, "at least a mile away." For instance:

C. I was at least a mile away when I heard the sirens.

This privileges the same information as Sentence A while introducing the "I" from Sentence B.

All writing benefits from being clear and direct. But we can draw special attention to academic writing, because it is a field that works closely with the meaning and practice of clarity. When someone says "academic writing," the words "complex," "difficult," and "convoluted" spring to mind.

Here are a couple of sentences. Which sounds more academic?

A. The pivotal role of African-Americans in the American Civil War is a subject worthy of research.

B. We should research the pivotal role of African-Americans in the American Civil War.

The first sentence uses "research" as a noun instead of a verb, and does not claim any responsibility with respect to the research that should be done. It is more "academic" than the second sentence, but is it any clearer?

Many otherwise brilliant sentences lack clarity because they conceal action, or they don't specify who does what. Clarity is one of a writer's greatest tools for engaging readers.

Writing With Cohesion

Sentences are made up of words arranged in particular ways, and we can usually tell when those words aren't properly ordered:

A. He, my brother, knew, because he had seen the question before, the answer.

Something isn't quite right here. The sentence is grammatically whole, but we would have a bad time trying to convince someone that it coheres, that its elements work together to form a meaningful whole. If you tried speaking this way, you would probably find that no one is listening. Our brains can interpret these sentences in the same way we read "liek" and "teh" as "like" and "the." But we should try not to force the reader to do the writer's work.

B. My brother knew the answer because he had seen the question before.

This sentence sounds normal: we wouldn't accuse anyone who said it of having some inverted brain cells. Sentence B coheres because it is formed in a way that makes its point directly and immediately accessible.

Readers will become frustrated if we arrange words in orders they cannot easily recognize and understand. Sentences that need to be read twice tend to lack cohesion, even if they are grammatically correct.

Writing cohesively can be a matter of small degrees. You will rarely encounter anything resembling the previous example in ordinary language but will likely see less obvious sentences like the following:

A. The king, disguised as a peasant, fled the country.

B. The king fled the country disguised as a peasant.

Neither of these sentences is very complex. They differ mainly in how the subject relates to the action — how "the king" relates to "fled." In Sentence A, these words are separated. In Sentence B, they appear side by side, allowing the subject and action to function seamlessly.

Clarity asks us to choose the right blocks, and cohesion asks us to make sure they stick together in a way that is both intuitive and informative.


Agents

The Short Version

Make sure your readers know who's doing what.

The Long Version

Agents initiate action. We can also think of agents as characters. Agents can be people, objects, ideas — anything that acts. Agency is a person's ability to act. Agents have agency, the power to act.

When you clearly indicate who or what the agent is, you will make the action more readily apparent to readers.


Positioning Agents as Subjects

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

To clarify chains of events, try mentioning agents (the doers of actions) at the beginning of your sentences.

The Long Version

An agent acts — it is a person, place, thing, or abstract concept that carries out the action. When you make an agent the subject of a sentence, your writing becomes more direct.

Note that the agent of a sentence might not correspond with the subject of that sentence. Though agent and subject often appear in the same word, they can appear separately (all sentences have subjects, but agents are optional). The subject is determined by grammatical arrangement and the agent by its relationship to the main verb or action in the sentence.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
The money was lost by me.

Revised:
I lost the money.

Explanation:
The agent ("me") hides in the prepositional phrase ("by me"). To revise, we moved the agent to the beginning of the sentence and made it the subject ("I"). The recipient of the action changes from subject to object. This process required us to change the sentence from passive to active voice because a passive subject doesn't act.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
Our plan is to take over the city.

Revised:
We plan to take over the city.

Explanation:
The subject of the sentence ("Our plan") hides the agent in the word "Our." We revised "plan" (a nominalization that hides action) to its verb form (also "plan"). We then changed the agent, "Our," to "We," enabling it to function as the subject of the sentence.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
The time sequence is confused in "Hamlet."

Revised:
Shakespeare confuses the time sequence in "Hamlet."

Explanation:
In this example, we can find a subject ("time sequence") that's being acted upon, but no agent. To revise, we can add an agent who serves as the subject ("Shakespeare"), making the old subject, which receives the action, into the object.


Recognizing the passive voice

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Your sentence is passive if the person or thing doing the action isn't the subject. To change a sentence to active, rewrite it with the doer of the action at the beginning.

The Long Version

Sentences with passive verbs often sound weak because the subject does not perform the action. You can identify passive sentences by looking for the agent: if the subject of the sentence doesn't perform any action, and if you can find or add an agent somewhere else in the sentence, then the sentence is passive. We can tell that the sentence "The letter to the Mayor was written by me" is passive because the agent ("me") hides in the prepositional phrase "by me" rather than serving as the subject. We recommend that you write sentences with active verbs.

Bureaucrats use the passive voice when they want to avoid accepting responsibility. In other words, the passive voice is used often in bureaucratic language, where the acceptance of responsibility is avoided. We use the passive voice and a nominalization in the previous sentence to illustrate this point.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
Another iteration of the design, which has been examined by many critics, appears in the next section, which is considered the most intriguing part of the book.

Revised:
Many critics have examined another iteration of the design, which appears in the next section. We consider this next section the most intriguing part of the book.

Explanation:
In revising, we changed the voice from passive to active and made into subjects the agents ("critics" and "we") who perform the action. By specifying who performs the action, we have added force and direction to the sentence. For instance, the active subject-verb phrase "we consider" not only specifies an agent, but also sounds more confident than the passive subject-verb phrase "is considered."

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
Verbs that use the passive voice are thought weaker than their active counterparts.

Revision:
Verbs that use the passive voice sound weaker than their active counterparts.

Explanation:
The passive verb phrase "are thought" sounds vague. The active version also accentuates who is doing the action (the verbs are doing the action in the active version).

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
The tent was soaked by the rain.

Revision:
The rain soaked the tent.

Explanation:
The original sentence tells us what happened (the tent got soaked) and what did it (the rain). It does not, however, tell us this with much force: we don’t learn what soaked the tent until the end of the sentence, and the action itself is weakened because it doesn’t proceed directly from an agent (the rain).


USING THE PASSIVE VOICE

The Short Version

The passive isn't always bad. If you think it works, keep it.

The Long Version

Although the passive voice often weakens a sentence, there are times when you can use it effectively in your writing. We recommend that you use the active voice whenever possible. Use the passive voice deliberately and when you know it will be more effective.

EXAMPLE 1:

Those who are found guilty can be incarcerated.

Explanation:
The passive verbs "are found" and "be incarcerated" underscore the recipients of the action: "those who are found guilty." This resists calling attention to whoever performs the action. In this instance, we need not specify who performs the action because readers will assume that the agent is a part of a judicial system.

EXAMPLE 2:

Rules are made to be broken.

Explanation:
This sentence uses the passive voice without identifying the agent who makes the rules. This assertion is a generalization that doesn't require specificity in order to be understood.

EXAMPLE 3:

That best selling marine biology book was written by someone who never spent any time at the beach.

Explanation:
The agent is "someone who never spent any time at the beach." By delaying the identity of the agent (which we do by using the passive voice), we can emphasize its position with respect to its context, just as the punchline of a joke is made humorous by the established situation.

EXAMPLE 4:

You can't deny that you have been given every opportunity.

Explanation:
"You" is the subject of the first clause ("You can't deny"). "You" is also the subject (but not the agent) of the second clause ("that you've been given every opportunity"). The passive underscores "you" by making it the subject of both clauses. This accentuates the accusatory tone of the sentence.

EXAMPLE 5:

Many book collectors would like a copy of Shakespeare's first folio. It was published in 1623 by John Heminge and Henry Conell.

Explanation:
The second sentence begins by referring back to the ending of the first sentence. This structure presents ideas progressively — a structure that would not be possible without the passive voice.

EXAMPLE 6:

Original:
The long subject, the superfluous adjectives and adverbs, and a relative clause push the verb to the end of the sentence.

Revision:
The verb is pushed to the end of the sentence by the long subject, the superfluous adjectives and adverbs, and a relative clause.

Explanation:
The first version starts with a long subject: "The long subject, with its superfluous adjectives, adverbs, and a relative clause." The revision uses a shorter subject to position the now passive verb at the beginning of the sentence: "The verb is pushed …" Once readers have this pertinent information, they can more readily understand the long noun clause. The passive may be useful in a sentence with an active verb and a long subject. We could also revise the sentence by deleting any unnecessary words in the long clause. In either case, we can write a concise sentence that is superior to the original.

EXAMPLE 7:

The passive voice occurs when the subject is being acted upon rather than acting.

Explanation:
It is appropriate to use the passive voice here because we are underscoring the subject that was acted upon (note that we're referring to the subject of the clause beginning with "when," not the main subject of the sentence). Form reflects content. The passive voice works well in this example because we want to both describe and demonstrate its effectiveness.

EXAMPLE 8:

Original:
John F. Kennedy's mother bore him in 1917.

Revision:
John F. Kennedy was born in 1917.

Explanation:
The active forms of some verbs are archaic. "Born" exemplifies this: it sounds odd to say "Kennedy's mother bore him in 1917." Modern English only uses the passive form of this word.


Actions

The Short Version

When you use strong, punchy verbs to describe actions, your writing is more powerful. When you use weak verbs or describe actions in a roundabout way, your writing is less powerful.

The Long Version

Actions drive sentences. A sentence without an action is not a sentence.

That said, some actions have more vitality than others. In the sentence "The orchid died," the action is obvious (death), but in the sentence "The orchid is dead," the action is not so easy to identify, hidden as it is by the vague verb "is." When actions are clear, readers can more easily identify what it is that actually happens — meaning that sentences with clear actions are easier to understand.

You'll find most actions in verbs. Some actions, however, are not so explicit; they hide in nouns or vague, generalized verbs. When you locate the action of your sentence in a strong, specific verb, you'll help your readers understand the story you're telling them.

Because the verb describes action that relates to other parts of the sentence, the verb ties the sentence together. And because the verb is such a forceful part of the sentence, you can best capture readers' attention if you arrange other parts of the sentence with the verb in mind.


HIGHLIGHTING ACTIONS

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

When you come across an adjective or adverb that has a verb form, try rewriting your sentence using the verb form instead.

The Long Version

Some adjectives and adverbs have verb forms. When these words do not take verb forms, they can conceal action and obscure the person or thing (the agent) performing the action.

When you encounter words that conceal action in this way, you can often turn them into verbs and introduce an agent, or rearrange the sentence to make an existing word into an agent. In some cases, you may need to substantially rewrite your sentence to ensure that your readers can easily understand the action performed by the agent.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
My grandma laughed heartily.

Revision 1:
My grandma laughed so heartily that she choked on a blueberry, which went up her nose and out her nostril with such force that when it splashed into her soup, and a gush of hot broth sprayed poor Curtis, adjacent to her and already in bad spirits.

Explanation:
In the original, the writer is telling us about, but not showing us, the heartiness of her grandma’s laughter. Since we can’t turn ‘heart’ into a verb, we’d like to see a result ensuing from this heartiness to show us more action. Consider the revision, which explains the resulting actions in vivid detail.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
That story was deeply troubling.

Revision 1:
That story troubled me deeply.

Revision 2:
I was deeply troubled by that story.

Explanation:
The adjective form "troubling" hides the fact that "story" is the agent performing the verb, "troubled." The original sentence doesn't indicate who was troubled by the story. The first revision positions the agent as the subject, while the second does not.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
The author was intent on having the main characters exist distantly from the reader.

Revision:
The author intended to distance the main characters from the reader.

Explanation:
The adjective "intent" and the adverb "distantly" both conceal action. By revising these words into verbs, we can clear up the sentence while empowering the author as an agent. The specific verbs "intended" and "distance" allow us to delete the weaker verbs, "having" and "exist."

EXAMPLE 4:

Original:
The speech was understandable.

Revision:
We understood the speech.

Explanation:
In the original sentence, the adjective “understandable” conceals action. We can highlight the action by changing this word into its verb form (“understood”) and introducing a new subject to serve as the agent (“We”).

EXAMPLE 5:

Original:
I drive speedily to the hospital.

Revision:
I sped to the hospital.

Explanation:
The original sentence uses a verb and an adverb ("drove speedily") to describe an action that we could describe using a single, stronger verb ("sped").

EXAMPLE 6:

Original:
The people acted defiantly against the tyrant.

Revision:
The people defied the tyrant.

Explanation:
We don't need to combine the empty verb "acted" with the adverb "defiantly" to describe how the people acted toward the tyrant. The adverb "defiantly" has a verb form ("defied"). When we use that verb form, as we do in the revision, we reposition the action in the verb, rather than in the adverb. When the actions reside in verbs rather than adverbs, your sentence will be stronger.

EXAMPLE 7:

Original:
The bus driver’s unreliability upsets students.

Revision:
Students are upset because the bus driver disregards the printed time schedule.

Explanation:
The word “unreliability” does not explicitly indicate the bus driver’s action that upsets the students. When we replace “unreliability” with a concrete action, “disregards the printed time schedule,” the sentence becomes more informative and better clarifies why the students are upset.

EXAMPLE 8:

Original:
Gifts were exchanged during the holiday party.

Revision:
We exchanged gifts during the holiday party.

Explanation:
Unlike simple past tense verbs, past participle tense verbs have multiple parts and usually require an auxiliary part (such as had, have, or has). In the original sentence, the past participle verb, “were exchanged,” conceals the action of exchanging and who performed the action. The revised sentence clearly indicates “We” perform the action of exchanging.


Handling the verb "to be"

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

"To be" is easy to overuse. If you can, try using a more specific verb. For instance, you could rewrite "The food was delicious" as "The food tasted delicious" ("was" is a form of "to be").

The Long Version

"To be" is the most commonly used verb in English. It can adapt itself to almost any context. And because it can serve so many different purposes, the verb "to be" often ends up serving none.

Too many writers overuse "to be." It often remains little more than an empty verb, satisfying the grammatical requirements of a verb without telling readers anything specific or distinctive. Excessive use of "to be" will make your sentences vague and colorless. If you replace an empty "to be" verb with a descriptive verb, you will make your prose more expressive and memorable.

If you want to make your prose more meaningful, look for nouns that have verb forms (nominalizations) and turn these nouns into verbs. This will enable you to reduce the number of "to be" verbs in your writing. If there are no such nouns in your sentences, you can introduce a new verb with a specific meaning, one that uniquely expresses the action in your sentence.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
The report is about how the government failed to abide by its own laws.

Revision:
Two newspapers reported that the government failed to abide by its own laws.

Explanation:
If we change "report" into a verb ("reported"), we can use it to replace the empty "to be" verb ("is"). The revised sentence makes the same point more forcefully and without using either "to be" or the nominalization "report."

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
It is an open question whether watering my orchid can be declared to be helpful or harmful.

Revision:
It remains an open question whether I help or harm my orchid by watering it.

Explanation:
The first sentence lacks an agent. The revision adds an agent ("I"). This replaces the empty "to be" verbs with more powerful verbs. For instance, we can replace replace "is" with "remains," change "helpful" and "harmful" (nouns) to "help" and "harm" (verbs), and eliminate the verb phrase "be declared."

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
There used to be orchards here.

Revision:
Orchards once flourished here.

Explanation:
In the revised sentence, we use the more evocative verb “flourished” to replace the empty “to be” verb. "Flourished” not only tells us that orchards used to exist here, but that they did well – which is more information than "to be" tells us.


FINDING ACTIONS

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Sometimes, words that describe actions are hidden within words that don't. For instance, "decide" is hidden within "decision." When possible, use words that describe actions rather than words that hide them.

The Long Version

Some verbs, adjectives, or adverbs have noun forms or have morphed into nouns. For instance, "arrival" (a noun) derives from "arrive" (a verb). We call these nouns nominalizations.

Nominalizations hide action and weaken the impact of your sentences. They also displace whatever agent you might have used as the subject of your sentence.

That said, some nominalizations have become standard features of our language. A few examples are "freedom," "love," and "taxes." When you find yourself using one of these nominalizations as the subject of your sentence, don't worry — it is nearly impossible to rephrase such words.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
There was a need for more chocolate.

Revision:
They needed more chocolate.

Explanation:
We changed the nominalization in the first sentence ("need") to a verb ("needed") in the second sentence. Nominalizations are often introduced by phrases that begin with empty words — "there," "It," and so forth.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
The committee made the decision to provide more food at the meetings.

Revision:
The committee decided to provide more food at the meetings.

Explanation:
The empty verb "made" precedes the nominalization ("decision"). In the revision, we changed "decision" to "decide" and used "decide" to replace "made." "Committee" and "meetings" are also nominalizations (derived from the verbs "to commit" and "to meet," respectively). Yet their verb counterparts can't replace them — the meanings have diverged too much.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
Going forward, our interpretation of this policy will be different because of our new understanding of its implications.

Revision:
Going forward, we will interpret this policy differently because we now understand what it implies.

Explanation:
The nominalizations "interpretation," "understanding," and "implications" contain verbs that are more specific than the sentence's main verb. To give the sentence more direct action, we changed "interpretation" to "interpret," "understanding" to "understand," and "implications" to "implies." We turned the nominalization "different" to its adverb form, "differently." We also added the agent "we" to clarify who performs the action.

EXAMPLE 4:

They never lost hope.

Explanation:
This is an example of an effective nominalization. We could rephrase the sentence as "They always hoped" — both versions work perfectly well, though the version with the nominalization is more common.

EXAMPLE 5:

Original:
He has a dependence on coffee.

Revision:
He depends on coffee.

Explanation:
Nominalizations often result in readers wading through extraneous words to arrive at the author’s point. The revision is a verb-driven sentence that presents the point clearly and quickly.

EXAMPLE 6:

Original:
She made discoveries that verify the cause of the crop blight.

Revision:
She discovered the cause the crop blight.

Explanation:
The nominalization “discoveries” is widely used and accepted today. However, in the original sentence, “discoveries” forces us to write a wordy sentence. By using the active verb “discovered,” we make our point more succinctly.

EXAMPLE 7:

Original:
Jane’s criticism of his presentation was harsh.

Revision:
Jane harshly criticized his presentation.

Explanation:
The nominalization, “criticism,” in the original sentence impedes clear communication. Revising the nominalization to the active verb “criticized” clearly indicates who performs the action and strengthens the sentence.

EXAMPLE 8:

Original:
The commencement of the awards ceremony will be at 7:00.

Revision:
The awards ceremony will commence at 7:00.

Explanation:
The revised sentence is stronger because the active verb results in clear, concise language.

EXAMPLE 9:

Original:
His illustrations depict mountains and lakes.

Revision:
He illustrates mountains and lakes.

Explanation:
It is difficult to determine exactly what a sentence is about when a nominalization follows a possessive pronoun. In the original sentence, the meaning of the clause “His illustrations” is unclear. Does he merely own the illustrations or did he draw them himself? The original version also allows the misinterpretation that his illustrations are literally, physically composed of mountains and lakes. The revision employs the verb "illustrates" to prevent misinterpretation and to clarify the subject of the sentence.

EXAMPLE 10:

Original:
His explications of the text were skillful.

Revision:
He explicates the text with skill.

Explanation:
Using the verb form, “explicates,” creates a clearer sentence because there is an explicit relationship between the agent, “He,” and the action, “explicates.”

EXAMPLE 11:

Original:
She has a necessity for a bandage.

Revision:
She needs a bandage.

Explanation:
The nominalization, “necessity,” makes it difficult to tell exactly what is going on in the original sentence. Who is doing what? “She” is having a “necessity for a bandage.” The revised sentence uses the verb “needs” to make the subject clear and straightforward.

EXAMPLE 12:

Original:
The compartmentalization of the office took place in one day.

Revision:
The office compartmentalized in one day.

Explanation:
The nominalization, “compartmentalization,” followed by “of” creates a wordy sentence: the original sentence has ten words and the revision has only six. By using the verb, “compartmentalized,” we create a clear, verb-driven sentence with fewer words.

EXAMPLE 13:

Original:
There was an assignment due Friday.

Revision:
The teacher assigned a project due Friday.

Explanation:
By revising “assignment” to its verb form “assigned,” we write a more informative and stronger, verb-driven sentence.

EXAMPLE 14:

Original:
The unconventional painting won the artist fame.

Revision:
Painting unconventionally won the artist fame.

Explanation:
“Painting,” in the original sentence, is a verbal noun: a noun that has no active qualities despite being derived from a verb. A verbal noun can be modified by adjectives, made plural, or be followed by a prepositional phrase. “Painting” is a widely used and accepted verbal noun, but in the original sentence, it is a confusing agent. "Painting" performs the action of "won fame," and this allows the interpretation that merely owning the painting won the artist fame. When we revise “painting” so that it is a verb, we credit the artist’s ability to paint unconventionally.

EXAMPLE 15:

Original:
His acceptance of the award was short.

Revision:
He accepted the award quickly.

Explanation:
Revising the verbal noun “acceptance” to the verb “accepted” makes the sentence verb-driven and concise.


Positioning the Subject

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Position your subject and verb as close to each other as possible.

The Long Version

You might confuse readers if you separate the subject and the main verb of a sentence with several words or clauses. You can clarify the action of a subject by moving the words separating the subject and verb to the end of the sentence.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
The whiteboard, because no one has erased or cleaned it for weeks, looks dirty.

Revision:
The whiteboard looks dirty because no one has erased or cleaned it for weeks.

Explanation:
The subject ("The whiteboard") is separated from the verb ("looks") by a dependent clause ("because … weeks"). We moved the dependent clause to the end to bring the verb closer to the subject. The revised sentence sounds clearer and more direct.

Alternatively, you can move the words separating the subject and verb to the beginning of the sentence, making them into an introductory clause. An introductory clause, however, will prevent readers from identifying the topic and its action until later in the sentence.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
The whiteboard, because no one has erased or cleaned it for weeks, looks dirty.

Revision:
Because no one has erased or cleaned it for weeks, the whiteboard looks dirty.

Explanation:
In the first sentence, the subject ("The whiteboard") is separated from the verb ("looks") by a dependent clause ("because … weeks"). Moving the dependent clause to the beginning brings the verb closer to the subject, improving the flow of the sentence.

Here's another option to consider: delete unnecessary words and clauses to condense your sentence.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
The whiteboard, because no one has erased or cleaned it for weeks, looks dirty.

Revision:
No one has erased or cleaned the whiteboard for weeks.

Explanation:
We deleted the unnecessary verb "looks" and made the verbs of the dependent clause into the main verbs of the sentence.

Yet another option is to revise dependent clauses into separate sentences.

EXAMPLE 4:

Original:
The whiteboard, because no one has erased or cleaned it for weeks, looks dirty.

Revision:
The whiteboard looks dirty. No one has erased or cleaned it for weeks.

Explanation
Here, we rewrite the dependent clause "because no one has erased or cleaned it for weeks" as its own sentence (we remove the subordinator "because" to prevent the clause from being a fragment). This brings the subject and verb closer together.


POSITIONING THE VERB

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Whenever possible, position your verb close to the beginning of the sentence.

The Long Version

The closer you position the main verb to the beginning of a sentence, the sooner readers will understand what is happening. When the verb doesn't appear until late in the sentence, readers may need to reread the sentence.

When the verb appears late in the sentence, you can move the verb to the beginning to make the sentence more direct and easily understood. You can do this by rearranging your sentence or by cutting out any unneeded words that precede the verb.

The verb may be delayed by introductory clauses, which include adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and long subjects.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
Despite the neighborhood's world famous bakeries and cafés, they always ate breakfast in the same place.

Revision:
They always ate breakfast in the same place, despite the neighborhood's world famous bakeries and cafés.

Explanation:
In the first sentence, the verb ("ate") doesn't appear until near the end of the sentence. We revised by moving the verb and its subject to the beginning of the sentence. Now, when readers arrive at the dependent clause ("despite … cafés"), they can make better sense of it.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
If you consider the amount of books lying around, and the amount of paper those books are written on, you might worry about the amount of trees that have been cut down.

Revision:
You might worry about the amount of trees that have been cut down if you consider the amount of books lying around, and the amount of papers those books are written on.

Explanation:
The clause that begins the first version delay the main verb. The second version remedies this by moving the clause to the end.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
Because of her flu-like symptoms and the severe weather, Hannah stayed home from school.

Revision:
Hannah stayed home from school because of her flu-like symptoms and the severe weather.

Explanation:
In the original sentence, the reader does not know what is going on until the end of the sentence because the verb “stayed” occurs so late. Readers better understand the dependent clause, “because of her flu-like symptoms and the severe weather,” when we present the verb, “stayed,” and the agent, “Hannah,” at the beginning.

EXAMPLE 4:

Original:
Because of climate conditions, although it is summer, a time traditionally associated with warm weather, sunny skies, and fluffy white clouds, it has rained almost every week.

Revision:
It has rained almost every week, despite being summer, a time traditionally associated with warm weather, sunny skies, and fluffy white clouds.

Explanation:
In the first example, the verb ("has rained") doesn't appear until quite late in the sentence. To revise, we moved some of the introductory clauses to the end and deleted an unnecessary clause. This leads to a sentence that is shorter and more easily understood.

EXAMPLE 5:

Original:
Loudly, with enough noise for three or four bands and not just one small group of musicians, the parade marched on.

Revision:
The parade marched on, with enough noise for three or four bands and not just one small group of musicians.

Explanation:
We may confuse readers if we don't tell them what the verb is until near the end of a sentence. To revise, we deleted repetitive description (the first word). We also moved the verb to the beginning of the sentence. As a result, readers immediately can perceive the action in the sentence. Here is the operative principle: whenever possible, mention the the verb at the outset.

EXAMPLE 6:

Original:
Athletes, over the past century, as nutrition, coaching, and training methods have improved, have made great progress.

Revision:
Athletes have made great progress over the past century as nutrition, coaching, and training methods have improved.

Explanation:
In the first example, readers see the agent ("athletes") as the sentence begins and the verb phrase ("have made") as it ends. To revise, we repositioned the words separating agent and the verb at the end. The goal is to link the agent and verb as closely as possible. (Note that the agent here is also the subject.)

EXAMPLE 7:

Original:
Introductory clauses, which include adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and long subjects, delay the verb.

Revision:
The verb is delayed by introductory clauses (which include adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and long subjects).

Explanation:
The revision diminishes but does not entirely eliminate the words preceding the verb ("delay" in the first version, "is delayed" in the second). While the revision contains an empty verb ("is") and employs the passive voice, it is more readable than the first version.


POSITIONING THE OBJECT

The Short Version

When possible, position the verb and object close together.

The Long Version

When you separate the verb and object in your sentence, your readers might forget the action of the verb before learning what object is being acted upon. To make it easier for readers to understand your point, you can move the words between the verb and object to either before or (better yet) after the verb and object.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
The explorers discovered, after a journey marked with boredom, fraught with seasickness, and misdirected by badly drawn maps, the treasure.

Revision:
The explorers discovered the treasure after a journey marked with boredom, fraught with seasickness, and misdirected by badly drawn maps.

Explanation:
A long dependent clause separates the verb "discovered" from the object "the treasure." By the time readers reach "the treasure," they may have forgotten the action (discovery) corresponding to the object (treasure). In the revision, we moved the object immediately after the verb. "The treasure" is a direct object because the explorers directly act on (discover) "the treasure."

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
The company sent, through the mail, us many advertisements.

Revision:
The company sent us many advertisements through the mail.

Explanation:
The verb ("sent") is separated from the objects ("us" and "advertisements") by the dependent clause ("through the mail"). To make the verb and its objects adjacent, we moved the clause to the end of the sentence.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
The sun can't shine, no matter how bright it shines above the clouds, through this fog.

Revision:
The sun can't shine through this fog, no matter how bright it shines above the clouds.

Explanation:
In the first sentence, a dependent clause separates the verb phrase ("can't shine") from its object ("fog"). In the second, we have moved the dependent clause to the end of the sentence. As a result, the verb and object phrases are next to each other.


CLARIFYING THE TOPIC

The Short Version

When possible, position the topic of your sentence as either the subject or object of that sentence.

The Long Version

The "topic" identifies what the sentence or text is about, the ground it covers, or the question it answers. In a sentence, the topic usually, but not always, corresponds to the grammatical subject.

If your topic is neither the subject nor the object, you have an opportunity to clarify for your readers what the sentence is about by repositioning the topic more prominently. Positioning your topic as the subject of your sentence will make it more recognizable, while positioning your topic as the object allows you to guide readers to the topic.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
It is unusual for the audience to completely agree with lecturers.

Revision:
The audience usually doesn't completely agree with lecturers.

Explanation:
The subject of this sentence is "It," an empty word that contributes nothing specific to the sentence. There is no object. The topic ("the audience") serves as neither the subject nor the object. The revision positions the topic as the subject.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
You might consider all aspects of the twelve effects of the Treaty of Ghent.

Revision:
You might consider the twelve effects of the Treaty of Ghent.

Explanation:
The subject is "You." The object is "all aspects." The topic is "twelve effects of the Treaty of Ghent." To revise, we position the topic as the object.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
It is now time to read the next chapter.

Revision:
We will read the next chapter now.

Explanation:
The subject of the original sentence is “it,” which is neither a subject nor object. The revision positions the topic, “the next chapter,” as the object of the sentence, creating a more cohesive sentence.


POSITIONING THE TOPIC

The Short Version

When possible, position the topic of your sentence toward the beginning of the sentence.

The Long Version

Topics identify the focus of a sentence or text. In a sentence, the topic usually, but not always, corresponds to the grammatical subject.

You can direct the attention of your readers to a topic if you position it close to the beginning of a sentence. If your topic does not appear within the first few words of a sentence, readers may find it more difficult to understand your point.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
It is difficult to explain astrophysics.

Revision:
Astrophysics is difficult to explain.

Explanation:
In the first sentence, the grammatical subject is "It." The topic is "astrophysics." We revise by moving the topic to the beginning of the sentence and making it the subject.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
Trying to fulfill the page requirement the professor had prescribed, the student didn't pay attention to what she was actually saying.

Revision:
The student didn't pay attention to what she was actually saying because she was trying to fulfill the page requirement the professor had prescribed.

Explanation:
In the first sentence, the subject and topic are identical ("the student"), but we do not mention "the student" until late in the sentence. As a result, readers don't discover who or what the sentence is about until after the dependent clause ("Trying … Professor"). The revision rearranges the same information to immediately show that the sentence is about "the student."

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
As the Pacific Plate moves over a fixed “hot spot,” new Hawaiian islands form.

Revision:
New Hawaiian islands form as the Pacific Plate moves over a fixed “hot spot.”

Explanation:
The topic of both the original and revision sentence is the formation of new Hawaiian islands. However, the original sentence presents the dependent clause, “As the Pacific Plate moves over a fixed hot spot,” at the beginning. This placement delays the topic, preventing readers from learning what the sentence is about until they reach the end.

Elegance

You can add a touch of elegance to your writing to ensure it retains your readers' interest.


VARYING SENTENCE LENGTH

Detected by WriteLab.

Short sentences can be direct, clear, and concise, while longer sentences can relate and contrast more complex ideas.

If you write several consecutive sentences of the same length, readers will likely find your prose repetitive or dull, regardless of the quality of those sentences. Consecutive short sentences can sound choppy and disjointed, while consecutive long sentences can get tangled in overly complex grammatical acrobatics.

We recommend varying the length of your sentences in order to control rhythm and tone, and to avoid repetition.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
I had an excellent breakfast. I ate eggs and bacon. I also ate fresh fruit. There was also oatmeal.

Revision:
I had an excellent breakfast. I ate eggs and bacon, fresh fruit, and oatmeal.

Explanation:
The original sentences sound repetitive and boring. The revision combines several of the original sentences to create a longer sentence, which follows the shorter first sentence.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
In Redgauntlet, Sir Walter Scott situates us in an isolated community: the two main characters, Darsie Latimer and Alan Fairford, have grown up in the legal community of Edinburgh (which represents the modern, Enlightenment world). Both find this community isolated — indeed, for Darsie, Edinburgh is represented by Alan's "narrow chamber and musty [law] books," while Alan himself spends most of his time studying and practicing law. The staunchest representative of this society, Fairford, sr., is intent on "preserving [his son, Alan] from the society of other young people" and does his best to ensure that Alan remains in Edinburgh studying law, rather than idly touring the countryside with Darsie.

Revision:
In Redgauntlet, Sir Walter Scott situates us in an isolated community. The two main characters, Darsie Latimer and Alan Fairford, have grown up in the legal community of Edinburgh (which represents the modern, Enlightenment world). Both find this community isolated. For Darsie, Edinburgh is represented by Alan's "narrow chamber and musty [law] books," while Alan himself spends most of his time studying and practicing law. The staunchest representative of this society, Fairford, sr., is intent on "preserving [his son, Alan] from the society of other young people" and does his best to ensure that Alan remains in Edinburgh studying law, rather than idly touring the countryside with Darsie.

Explanation:
The first version of this paragraph has three sentences of roughly equal lengths (33, 34, and 45 words). The revision has five sentences of varying lengths (9, 24, 5, 27, and 45 words). In this revision, long sentences are interspersed with short ones, allowing us to catch our breath before plunging into the next thought. And, because the pauses (indicated when a sentence ends) arrive at uneven times, the revised paragraph sounds less monotonous and retains our interest more easily.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
An agent describes a person, place, thing, or concept that performs the action (the verb) of a sentence, and though this may be less exciting than well-dressed sentient programs, agents are an important part of how we communicate. We don't have to think consciously about agents, or even know what they are, in order to use them because language would be crippling if we had to know a mile of grammar for every inch of words we write or speak.

Revision:
An agent describes a person, place, thing, or concept that performs the action (the verb) of a sentence. This may be less exciting than well-dressed sentient programs, but agents are an important part of how we communicate. We don't have to think consciously about agents, or even know what they are, in order to use them. Language would be crippling if we had to know a mile of grammar for every inch of words we write or speak.

Explanation:
The long length and close proximity of the original sentences cause the reader to quickly lose interest in what we are saying. In revising, we break the information up into shorter, more manageable sentences.

Clarity Checklist

Whenever possible, do the following things to ensure that your writing is clear and direct:
  • Recognize the performer of an action in your sentences (the agent) and position it as the subject.
  • Identify passive verbs and turn them into active ones.
  • Determine when an adjective can be rewritten as a verb.
  • Use specific verbs instead of overusing forms of "to be."
  • Recognize verbs that are expressed as nouns and rewrite them as verbs.
  • Emphasize the topic of a sentence by positioning it as the subject.
  • Position the topic as either subject or object to clarify the purpose of a sentence for your readers.
  • Keep the subject and verb of a sentence close together to avoid confusing your readers.
  • Position the main verb close to the beginning of a sentence.
  • Reposition or remove words that delay the verb of a sentence.
  • Reposition words that separate a verb from its object.
  • Begin a sentence with a familiar term or topic and introduce new ideas toward the end, allowing readers to better understand your point.