Write clear sentences

One golden rule for clarity is that sentences should be comprehensible at first reading. Thus when you are reading through a draft, read each sentence individually and check that it makes sense, and that it would not be better split into two.

Some other strategies for clear sentence construction are as follows:

Use the active rather than the passive voice
Use parallel sentence construction
Use punctuation carefully
Use phrases and clauses carefully and accurately

Use the active rather than the passive voice

Using the passive voice (the subject receives the action) rather than the active (the subject does the action) when the latter would do just as well is a classic error even amongst experienced writers, and has the immediate effect of adding unnecessary words which means that the meaning loses impact. Consider the following sentence:

The reason why he stopped composing was because his health started failing—›Failing health caused him to give up composing.

The second sentence is much clearer than the first, because the weight of the action is taken by the verb, and has less words so is more concise.

There may be times when using the passive voice makes better sense, as for example when the verb or the object of the sentence are more important than the subject, as in:

Women were given the vote.

Skating is forbidden.

A related fault is to use noun formulations of verbs, such as:

implementation for implement, as in 'The implementation of the plan was successful' for 'The plan was implemented successfully'.

Use parallel sentence construction

When similar ideas are introduced, emphasize their similarity by using a similar grammatical construction. The following two (very different) examples illustrate this:

It is on this premise that the research was conducted which aimed at exploring two specific areas: pre-outsourcing cost analysis and post-outsourcing supplier management. The first topic was chosen primarily because the existing literature is rather prescriptive and only offers transaction cost theory (Walker and Weber, 1984; Alexander and Young, 1996a) as an analytical tool, which most commentators believe is ineffective. The second topic was selected due to the lack of research on the subject, and the evidence suggested that most outsourcing deals have fallen short of expectations and deteriorated over time (Lacity et al., 1994; Greenberg and Canzoneri, 1997). 'Strategic outsourcing: evidence from British companies', Marketing Intelligence & Planning, 18: 4 (2000)

You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal. (Exodus 20: 13-15)

Use punctuation carefully

Punctuation is a huge topic, and not one which we can easily deal with by mentioning a few simple rules. If you are aware that you have a problem with how to use punctuation, you would be better consulting a book on grammar, or other reference book such as Fowler's Modern English Usage (see Finding help with writing in English - Books and Finding help with writing in English - Websites). Any of these resources will give you some basic help in applying punctuation sensibly and sensitively.

Here are some 'starter' rules for good punctuation which if broken can cause some linguistic confusion:

Use commas to help the reader breathe

The spoken aspect of language dictates the way we read and write. When you read this sentence you will probably be reading it in your head and you will subconsciously pause for breath at certain points and you will probably find reading this sentence difficult because it has no commas. In fact, commas are the 'breathing spaces' in sentences, and one way of seeing where you need to include commas is to read your sentence to yourself and see where you need to introduce pauses.

Effective use of the comma should mean that the reader has no need to pause and think about the sense of the sentence.

Use commas to separate out clauses

A clause is an independent part of a sentence, with a noun and a verb. Some clauses should be separated by commas, particularly those that can stand on their own as sentences (known as independent clauses) for example:

I decorated the room in blue, although I prefer purple.

Relative clauses (i.e. clauses which introduce new material into a sentence relating to one of the constituent parts) should also be separated out by commas:

Second, where there was high agreement, there also had to be high certainty that on a scale from 1-10 the items measured team efficiency ('Transformational leadership or the iron cage: which predicts trust, commitment and team efficacy?' The Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 22: 7, 2001)

Use semi-colons to separate out two equally balanced clauses, as in the following example:

These comments press a case for some re-thinking on the question of how theory can support empirical research; they also make reference to a bewildering array of theoretical forms...'What counts as "theory" in qualitative management and accounting research? Introducing five levels of theorizing', Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 16: 4, (2003)

Use phrases and clauses carefully and accurately

Be careful where you place subordinate clauses - if they are placed in the middle of sentences, this can be confusing.

'In the case described in this study, observation was mainly used qualitatively as the research was highly exploratory in nature.' If this was phrased 'Observation was, In the case described in this study, mainly used qualitatively as the research was highly exploratory in nature' then the sentence would read awkwardly.

When you refer back to something using a construction such as 'this', make sure that it is clear what you are referring to. For example:

'My husband works as a musician sometimes, this is his third career.' would be better stated as 'My husband works as a musician sometimes; music is his third career.'

Avoid wordiness