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Ken Ward's Writing Pages

Plain English

While the secret of art is to conceal art, the secret of instruction is to reveal it. Hence example sentences are not good art!

Writing Contents

Page Contents

  1. What is Clear Writing?
  2. The Main Barrier to Plain English
  3. Why Learn the Principles of Plain English?
  4. Readability Software
  5. The Reader
  6. Familiar Words
  7. Use Shorter Words
  8. Avoid Nominalizations
  9. Make Your Subjects Doers
  10. Shorter Sentences
  11. Use the Positive Rather Than The Negative 
  12. Avoid Unnecessary Words
  13. American and British English
  14. Noun Chains
  15. Avoid Jargon
  16. Avoid Foreign Expressions
  17. Examples

Temporary Contents

  1. Writing
    1. Page Contents
  2. What is Plain English?
  3. The Main Barriers to Clear and Effective Writing
    1. We can judge the clarity and effectiveness of others' writing better than we can judge our own
    2. Why we almost always believe our writing is clear and effective (even thought it might not be)
    3. The words "clear and effective", which we use to judge writing, do not refer to the words we read, but to our feelings about those words.
    4. How can we judge our own writing (and that of others)?
  4. Why Learn the Principles of Plain English?
    1. Educational Example
    2. Business Example
    3. Government Example
  5. The Reader
  6. Familiar Words
    1. Readers misunderstand unfamiliar words rather than simply fail to understand them
    2. Examples
      1. Example 1
      2. Example 2
      3. Example 3
    3. List of Confusing Words
  7. Use Shorter Words
    1. How to Write Shorter Words
    2. List of Shorter Word Equivalents
  8. Avoid Nominalizations
    1. Verbal Nominalizations
      1. Example 2
      2. Example 3
    2. Examples
      1. Verbal Nominalizations based on the verb to be
      2. Verbal Nominalizations based on weak verbs
    3. Acceptable Verbal Nominalizations
      1. Nominalizations summarizing previous ideas
      2. Nominalizations naming the verb's object
      3. Common Ideas
    4. Other Nominalizations
  9. Make Your Subjects Doers
    1. Refer to the Reader as You
    2. Make Your Subjects Doers
  10. Shorter Sentences
    1. How to Write Shorter Sentences
    2. Examples of Shorter Sentences
  11. Use the Positive Rather Than The Negative
      1. Example 3
  12. Avoid Unnecessary Words
    1. Adjectives and Adverbs
  13. Noun Chains
  14. Avoid Jargon
  15. Avoid Foreign Words and Expressions
  16. Examples
      1. Example 1
      2. Example 2
      3. Example 3
      4. Example 4
      5. Example 5
      6. Example 6
      7. Example 7
      8. Example 8
      9. Example 9
      10. Example 10
      11. Example 11
      12. Example 12

What is Plain English?

Plain English is a style of writing text that is easy to read. It is easy to read by its intended readers. Therefore, Plain English isn't necessarily easy to read by all readers - it is easy to read by its intended readers - and it is not always written using very short words and sentences - it uses words that aren't too long for its intended readers. In addition to being easy to read Plain English should be easy to understand. It should also be clear. Plain English and Clear Writing are not the same thing. Although Plain English should also be clear writing, clear writing might not be Plain English.
Plain EnglishClear and Effective Writing
Prefer the shorter word.Prefer the correct word
Write shorter sentences.Write clear sentences
Avoid nominalisations.Use nominalizations correctly.
Use you when referring to the reader. Make your subjects the doers of the action.
Use the active voice rather than the passive. Use the active voice, except when the passive is appropriate for reasons of style.
Readability software indicates how well we have succeeded in writing Plain English, but it is only an indication. Readability software indicates how readable our text is. However, we seek to make our text clear and effective for our intended reader, and readability scores may be wildly wrong.
Consider the following sentence:
The bone the dog the milk drank bit the cat.
It has a Flesch Reading Ease of 100, meaning everyone can read it. Of course, no one can. Even though text might be written using simple words and short sentences, it may be difficult or impossible to understand.

The sentence below is easy to read - it has a Flesch reading ease of 100 - but difficult to understand:
The old man the boat.

The following sentence of 72 words is for me a brilliant sentence. It is clear and effective.
A century later, during the course of the Second World War, the first electronic incarnations of Babbage's machine would have a profound effect on cryptanalysis, but in his own lifetime, Babbage made an equally important contribution to codebreaking: he succeeded in breaking the Vigenère cipher and in so doing he made the greatest breakthrough in cryptanalysis since the Arab scholars of the ninth century broke the mono-alphabetic cipher by inventing frequency analysis.
Simon Singh The Cracking Codebook Harper Collins 2001
(72 words)
However, its Flesch Reading Ease Score is 0, suggesting only a minute perecentage of the population could understand it. This is clearly untrue.

The Main Barriers to Clear and Effective Writing

Our own writing seems clear enough to us. Should a friend ask us what we meant by something we had written, we are able to explain it to them, because we understand it. Yet the fact that we need to explain it indicates that what we have written is not clear to all readers; in particular, our friend. 

We can judge the clarity and effectiveness of others' writing better than we can judge our own

While we can very quickly and accurately determine whether the writing of others is clear and effective, we are not so able when it comes to our own writing. When others tell us our writing is obscure, we may be puzzled because it seems clear enough to us. This is true only when we have written something recently, because, later, after we have forgotten what we have written and re-read it, we may realise that it wasn't as clear as we thought.

Why we almost always believe our writing is clear and effective (even thought it might not be)

When you wish to write something, you have in mind something you wish to communicate and you translate this into words. Your readers seeks to understand what you have written and read your article, forming certain ideas in their minds as they read the words. If they can do this, without too much difficulty, they will judge your writing to be clear, but if they stumble or hesitate over the words or the way you have expressed yourself, they will judge your writing as unclear or difficult. Largely, they will easily read what you have written if
When you write something, you begin by understanding what you want to say and why you want to say it, and then translate this into words. But your readers do the reverse: they begin with your words, and through reading hope to understand your message. That is, your readers need to infer what you want to say and why you want to say it from your words. They will succeed in this to the degree you have succeeded in translating your ideas into language. It is extremely difficult for you to judge this simply by re-reading, because you cannot read your own writing as a reader would read it, because you already know, what your readers need to infer.

The words "clear and effective", which we use to judge writing, do not refer to the words we read, but to our feelings about those words.

The words "clear and effective", which we can use to judge the writing of others, do not refer to anything in the writing, but refer to our feeling towards it. Because you already know what you want to communicate, when you read our own writing you tend to have a good feeling about it and judge it as being clear and effective. Others reading it might make a different judgement. They may do this because all they have to understand your message is the words you have used, whereas you understand what you have in mind to communicate, and your words are an attempt to express this. Because the reader is better able to judge text than the writer is, it is somewhat pointless, to urge ourselves and others to write clearly and effectively, when we cannot effectively judge our own writing and they cannot judge theirs. What we need are benchmarks or yardsticks to gauge our writing, gauges that refer more directly to the words we use and how we arrange them, a set of principles that guide us to making specific changes which make our writing clearer and more effective. Readability Tests and Software can also help.

How can we judge our own writing (and that of others)?

In order to judge your own writing, you need to rely on practical principles rather than on your feelings about your writing, because the feeling you have about your own writing may not be the same as those felt by your readers. Therefore you need to use practical principles, such as those mentioned later on this page, for example:
By using practical principles, you can identify possible areas of misunderstanding and make your writing clearer and more effective.

Why Learn the Principles of Plain English?

There are two main purposes in learning the principles of Plain English:
  1. Your readers will better understand what you intend to communicate
  2. You will be able to use these principles to unravel the obscure writing of others (as a study skill). 
That is, you are more likely to communicate with your readers if you write clearly and effectively. While you can hope that others seek to write clearly and effectively too, you will often find you have to read badly written text. However, you can use these same rules of Plain English to help you read the obscure writing of others, improving your ability to study and to understand.

Educational Example

If we think of the Persistence Question as asking which of the characters introduced at the beginning of a story have survived to become the characters at the end of it, we can also ask how many characters are on the stage at any one time.

The writer appears to be saying:
The Persistence Question is: "For what reasons can we say that a character existing at the end of a story is the same person as one present at the beginning?".

Business Example

A bus company employee manual states:
Where passengers cannot be accepted because of the potential overload of the vehicle, you should inform positively of the situation and where possible provide appropriate information as to how to complete the journey.

Ex-bus-driver, Guy Gibson suggests, the driver says:

Sorry, we’re full. There will be another one along in a few minutes.

Government Example

"If you pass your test for a larger vehicle category, in certain circumstances a lower category will be upgraded. This does not apply, however, to a driver who has already passed a test which involves trailer entitlement for a larger or equivalent vehicle."

I have no idea what this means. I cannot edit it without doing more research. It seems to say that if you pass a test to drive a larger vehicle, such as a truck, your license to drive a smaller one, say a car, will be upgraded. I can understand this.

But then it says this is not so, if you have already passed a test to drive a larger vehicle with a trailer.  My confusion arises because I wonder:
Government communications are clearly important, but when they are not clear they cannot be effective. This example shows we cannot always unravel sentences, and they sometimes remain a mystery.

The Reader

Whether writing is clear and effective, or not, depends on the intended reader. For example, a report for post-graduate quantum physicists is judged as clear and effective, if it is clear and effective in communicating its message to post-graduate quantum physicists. However, if such a report were intended for the general reader, it would probably be described as dense and obscure. Similarly, a message about a recent scientific discovery would be written in different words and using different sentence forms when written for a professional journal than it would be written for a newspaper. And a notice on a wall is clear and effective when it is written in a way that a passer-by can take in its meaning at a glance.

In general, a message is clear and effective when it is written using words that are familiar to the intended reader and uses sentences of a reasonable length, meaning that the intended reader is willing and able to understand them. When expressing complicated ideas, the words may be long and the sentences long too, but they should not be longer than the subject matter demands. Sentences covering two pages, are too long for any purpose. And sentences of 15 words may be too short for others.

When writing for particular readers, you need to note whether they will take the trouble to understand what you have written - using study techniques and reference books, in which case they will probably be your students or professional colleagues - or whether they will read your message once only and either understand it or misunderstand it. In which case, they will take in some other message and wrongly attribute it to you. When you can expect your readers - or, to be frank, require or compel them - to study what you have written, you can use words they will not at first understand and you can use challenging sentence structures but when you cannot expect your readers to do more than read what you have written in one go, you need to use simpler writing .

Familiar Words

You communicate more effectively when you use words that are familiar to your readers. Familiar words are often short words, but not always: for instance, impossible is a long word, but it is also a familiar one. This rule does not say you should use only words found in the local newspaper, but says you should use only words commonly found in the material your readers commonly read. In some cases, this means you use words which are unknown to the general reader, but familiar to your particular readers. For instance, you might use apiary when writing for bee-keepers, but prefer bee-hive when writing for general readers.

When readers do not understand a word, they will may guess its meaning. They may realise they are doing this or they may do it automatically - often relating the unknown word to a known word. If the word is similar to a word they know, they will assume the unknown word means about the same as the word they do know. For instance, they may think an exhaustive study was one that was tiring, because exhaustive is similar to the familiar word exhausting. In this case, the reader's understanding may be similar to the writer's intended meaning - if the study was exhausting, then the investigators must have worked hard on the study to get so tired, so they probably left no stone unturned (they were exhaustive). The writer and the reader have struck lucky, even though the reader has misunderstood the word.

However, the writer might not be so lucky. For instance, the word compliment is more familiar than the word complement. If we are told "She rose quickly in the company because she complements him in his work", some readers might think that she is very flattering to him - compliments him - and might view the statement negatively: thinking he is vain and corruptible, promoting her above more able colleagues because she makes him feel bigheaded and puffed-up like a frog, and she is a bootlicker and a creep because she seeks power through her feminine wiles and not through her intelligence and ability, they may think this instead of correctly thinking her strengths in business make up for his weaknesses, so together they make a powerful team. Even though further statements might correct this misunderstanding, the harm has been done, and - at the least - the reader is confused. More likely, these negative feelings might be hard to dispel, clouding further understanding. While making no error in grammar or diction the writer has failed to get through to the readers.

The work remains a nonpareil: direct, correct and delightful. - New Yorker

The delightful word nonpareil is not a familiar word to some readers. It means a person or thing with no equal. For general readers, we prefer unequalled or peerless.

Readers misunderstand unfamiliar words rather than simply fail to understand them

You might think that readers will simply not understand any unfamiliar words you use. However, readers tend to guess the meanings of unfamiliar words. For instance, many general readers do not understand the underlined words in "The study was extensive and exhaustive.", and tend to interpret the sentence as meaning, "The study was very tiring and expensive.", because they think the words mean something like expensive and exhausting, words they are familiar with. Writers who are familiar with many words think this example is a weak joke; whereas it isn't. It is very easy for writers with a large vocabulary to overestimate the vocabulary of their readers.

Examples

Example 1

We train our students to analyse technical reports with some sophistication. s3
The reader might wonder whether this means that students are taught to analyse in a sophisticated manner, or to analyse sophisticated technical reports.
If we go for a simpler word than sophisticated, we might prefer to write either:
We train our students to correctly analyse technical reports. s1

Or
We train our students to analyse complex technical reports.s1
Our choice depending on our intended meaning.

Example 2


Perspicuity in prose writing is enhanced through the felicitous choice of lexical units.s3

As felicitous means appropriate, and perspicuity means clarity, we might prefer:
The right choice of words improves clarity.s1

Example 3

The following sentence isn't hard. It represents the ability of an average 13 year-old, and a reading ease of 68%.
There's a tendency to break the diet when you see these highly palatable foods. That sets it up so you get into a cycle  of intermittent naughtiness. It gets you into a momentum - hooked on that sort of cycle.

Because tendency is a verbal noun, we write You tend to break. And highly palatable foods are tasty foods. The second sentence seems to say, That sets up a cycle of naughtiness. intermittent isn't necessary because a cycle is intermittent. So we have:
You tend to break the diet when you see these tasty foods. That sets up a cycle of naughtiness. You get hooked on this cycle.

This has a reading ease of 97% so most people can read and understand it easily, which is important when you intend to communicate health advice to general readers.

List of Confusing Words

Familiar words make writing clearer. Some words are more likely to cause confusion, than other words, making the text less clear. The list below contains examples of words that might be confusing. Depending on the readers, therefore, you might choose to avoid confusing words, preferring a less confusing word or phrase. 
Familiar Words and Phrases
Confusing  Familiar Comment
allusion hint Some readers might confuse an allusion with a mental problem or with a false perception.
complement supplement, round off This word might be confused with compliment.
continuous      without stopping; non stop A siren wails continuously, without stopping, but a ticking sound occurs continually, or again and again. 
continual     frequent, again and again
credible       believable, likely If a story is credible, then we believe it. A person's behaviour is creditable when it is worthy and good.
creditable praiseworthy, good
discreet diplomatic, wary In physics, we might speak of discrete particles. If we tell a secret to someone, we expect them to be discreet.
discrete     separate, individual
defuse defuse The word defuse is okay, but diffuse might be confused with defuse by some readers.
diffuse     spread throughout, scatter; wordy
exceptionable nasty An exceptionable person is bad in some way; perhaps, hostile. An exceptional person is not bad in any way; they are simply different.
exceptional out of the ordinary
exhaustive complete Some readers believe that exhaustive means tiring, because they confuse it with the more familiar exhausting.
grisly horrible, gory It is just that a grisly story might lead some readers to expect bears at some stage.
grizzle grumble
grizzly grizzly bear
hoard a store of something To avoid misunderstandings with these words, a synonym might be preferred.
horde mob
militate (against) to affect Some British authorities believe that the use of militate as a substitute for mitigate is an American idiom: most American authorities believe the confusion of these words is an error in both languages. 
mitigate to lessen (severity)
ordinance law There is a difference between law and cannons!
ordnance guns, cannons, etc
paedophile child abuser While these words have quite different meaning, the reading-challenged tend to confuse them, with serious results.
paediatrician children's doctor
pedagogue teacher, educator
perquisite perk, tip or gratuity Some years ago, a business student asked me what "management perquisites" were. I was unsure, but we guessed they were "perks".
prerequisite requirement
prescribe prescribe The two words have almost opposite meanings. Prescribe is well-known; proscribe is used less frequently.
proscribe forbid
shear cut the wool from sheep, very thin The pairs of words are homophones, words that sound the same, but are spelt differently, and have a different meaning. Confusion can occur in speech, and in writing when we are unsure of the spelling of these words.
sheer swerve
stationary not moving
stationery writing materials, etc
storey floor
storyan account of events
titillate to excite Confusing these words can have amusing results - for bystanders. For general readers, titivate might be better replaced with smarten up.
titivate to smarten up
tortuous twisting and turning A tortuous journey might also be pleasant, although a torturous journey is not.
torturous agonizing
turbid clouding, opaque (liquid) Turbid writing is vague and unclear. Turgid writing is wordy and perhaps written more to impress than to communicate. Writing may be turgid but not turnbid, and vice versa.
turgid pompous, wordy
unsociable not enjoying the company of others If you work late, you work unsocial hours, but it doesn't mean you are unsociable - you might dislike working these hours and prefer to socialize.
unsocial interfering with social life
venal corruptible, bribeable
venial a non damming sin
venerealrelated to sex

Use Shorter Words

Shorter words are easier to read than longer ones. This is because it takes less time to move the eye (and to sub vocalize) shorter words. Therefore, when the reader is expected to read text without much effort, the writer should prefer the shorter word to the longer one. Text containing many long words is dense and reading such text is much harder than reading text that mainly contains shorter words. On the other hand, text that contains many short words can be monotonous. When the writer needs to communicate a message quickly to readers (such as a notice), the writer should use shorter words. While writers use more longer words when writing technical articles, they would make their writing less dense by balancing their use of longer words with shorter words, if they wish to be clear.

How to Write Shorter Words

The writer can:

List of Shorter Word Equivalents

Shorter words are easier to read than longer ones. Where appropriate, you might prefer the shorter word or phrase to the longer one.
Shorter Word Equivalents
Long Word Shorter Words
accordingly so
additional more, extra
adequate enough
alleviate lessen, reduce, ease
available at hand, handy, in stock
concerning about
consequently so
contribute lead to, give to, add to
endeavour try
entitlement right
establish set up
exponential rapid
incidence rate, amount
necessitate call for
nevertheless even so, however
nonetheless even so, however
obtain get
purport claim
reduction cut

Avoid Nominalizations

By changing a word or group of words into a noun, you make a nominalization. A nominalization is a word or group of words which is changed into a noun, sometimes by adding a suffix. Nominalizations are often derived from verbs, but they can be derived from other parts of speech, such as adjectives.

Verbal Nominalizations

Verbal nominalizations are nouns derived from verbs. You can nominalize the verb imply by turning it into the noun implication. If you turn "The new report implied that he was corrupt, which angered him." into a nominalization, "The  implication angered him.", you lose the subject, the new report, and the object, "that he was corrupt". When you do this, you hide the subject and the object of the verb, making your writing denser and vaguer. Your readers no longer know what the implication was, nor who made it. You can make your writing clearer by limiting the number of nominalizations of verbs.

Consider:
The importation of timber from endangered forests is a crime. s1.gif

The word importation is called a nominalization because it is a noun which comes from a verb: the verb is import. Sentences are often clearer when they are rewritten using an active verb, instead of the nominalization. They are even better when you give the verb a concrete subject. For instance, ask who, or what, is importing this wood, and the answer gives us a concrete person.  For instance:
Companies who import timber from endangered forests without a licence commit a crime. s1.gif

  1. Identify the nominalization. In this case, it is importation.
  2. Find the verb. Here it is import.
  3. Now verbs have subjects, the doer of the verb's action. We can identify the subject by asking, "Who or what is importing?" Sometimes, we need to guess the answer. In the above example, we guess companies. That is "companies import something".
  4. Find the object by asking, "Who or what is being imported?" In this case it is timber that is being imported. 
  5. Re-write the sentence using simple sentences. This can be done in note form, and does not have to be correct English. Here we have 
"Companies import timber. The timber is from endangered forests. They do it without a licence. They commit a crime." s3
  1. We can give thought to how the sentences are related. The second one describes the timber in the first sentence, "timber from endangered forests", and the third sentence tells us about the condition of importing (if). And the last says what the consequences are, that is, "they commit a crime".
  2. Combine these simple sentences into ones of reasonable length. For instance, 
"Companies who import timber from endangered forests without a licence commit a crime." s1

Example 2

The formalization of the process has alienated the members.s3

  1. The nominalization is formalization
  2. The verbs is formalize
  3. We do not know who did the formalizing, but guess we. "We formalized something".
  4. "the process" is what is formalized. "We formalized the process."
  5. Using simple sentences, we have "We formalized the process. Something has alienated the members." 
  6. The sentences are related by cause and effect, implying because
  7. We can combine the sentences to get: 
Because we formalized the process, we have alienated our members. a

Example 3

Consider this sentence:
Avoidance of writing excessively long sentences in the absence of readership considerations, excepting an infrequent occurrence, is recommended. x

Avoidance, absence, considerations and occurrence are nominalizations from the verbs avoid, absent (done without), and consider. The subject of avoid is presumably, you the writer. And what is avoided is excessively long sentences. So, we can write "Avoidance of writing excessively long sentences" as "you should avoid writing excessively long sentences".

The subject of the next verb, absent or not done, is "readership considerations", which is also a nominalization based on the verb consider

The subject of consider is, again, you the writer. And what you are considering is your reader. So putting together the analysis of the last two nominalizations, we get "without considering your readers". Putting this together with what we have so far, we have,
"You should not write excessively long sentences without considering your readers."

The next nominalization, the word occurrence, means "something happening at a certain time", or "when something happens". This something is "the writing of excessively long sentences". If we ask, "Who is writing?", we find the subject is you, so we have: "when you write excessively long sentences". And because this is infrequent, we have "excepting when you write excessively long sentences infrequently."

Since we have already referred to long sentences, we can write, "excepting when you write such sentences infrequently."

Putting all this together:
You should avoid writing excessively long sentences without considering your readers, excepting when you write such sentences infrequently. x

We can tidy up this sentence. We can drop excessively, because this is implied by "long sentences", and also drop the first use of writing, because this is implied. We can also write unless for "excepting when". So we get:
You should avoid long sentences without considering your readers, unless you write such sentences infrequently. s1

While the sentence is clearer, because it no longer has nominalizations and we have created real subjects (you), it is extremely negative. See the further work we need to do in the example below.

Examples

Verbal Nominalizations based on the verb to be

This is dependent on status. x
This depends on status. tick

An abstract idea is produced by the exclusion of details. x
By excluding details, you produce an abstract idea. tick

Success is the result of hard work.x
Success results from hard work.tick

There is significant opposition among the voters.x
The voters oppose it strongly. tick

There was a high incidence of recurrence. x
It recurred frequently. tick

Verbal Nominalizations based on weak verbs

Scientists performed a test of the substance.x
Scientists tested the substance.tick

We are concerned about the incidence of vandalism in the area.x
We are concerned about vandalism in the area. tick

We are instigating inquiries into the matter.x
We are inquiring into the matter. tick

They made a selection of the important books.x
They selected the important books. tick

Acceptable Verbal Nominalizations

If you use nominalizations inappropriately, they make your writing dense and vague. But if they are used properly, they make your writing crisper.

Nominalizations summarizing previous ideas

By excluding details, you produce an abstract idea. Therefore, an abstraction has fewer details than the original.  tick

He campaigned against violent behaviour on the streets. He would not tolerate street violence. tick

They selected the important books. This selection was controversial. tick

Nominalizations naming the verb's object

I was wondering about what they concluded.x
I was wondering about their conclusions.tick

What he had inferred was invalid.x
His inferences were invalid.tick

Common Ideas

For the new year, I resolved to do some new things.x
I made some New Year Resolutions.tick

He believed that individuals should be free to inspect what organizations held about them on computer.x
He believed in Freedom of Information.tick

They objected to women being allowed to ask doctors to abort their foetuses, for non-medical reasons. x
They objected to Abortion on Demand.tick

Other Nominalizations

We can also nominalize adjectives. The word apparent can become the noun apparentness; red can become redness; violent can become violence.

Make Your Subjects Doers

Refer to the Reader as You

Writing becomes easier when you refer to the reader as you. When you do this, you are less likely to use nominalizations, passives and round-about expressions. Your writing will be more coherent, because you use you as the subject of your sentences. Similarly, refer to yourself the writer, or your organisation, as I or we. This technique of using pronouns can be a very simple and effective way of making your writing clearer and more cohesive.

Make Your Subjects Doers

Grammar teachers often teach children that the subject of a sentence is "the doer of the action". This is true for effective sentences, but not for ineffective ones. When the subject of a sentence isn't "the doer", we should change the sentence so the subject is "the doer". A simple way to do this is to use "you" and "we" as the "doers" in the sentence.
Customer satisfaction depends on employee courtesy.

Noting that satisfaction is a nominalization, we can identify the real verb as satisfy. We can ask, "Who satisfies whom?" A possible answer is, "We satisfy our customers with our service." We do it by "being courteous to them." This gives us:
We satisfy our customers better if we are courteous to them. 

Shorter Sentences

When dense writing contains sentences which we consider too long, the easiest way to make sentences clearer and more effective is to shorten them. Also, we might do this when trying to understand the writing of others, for instance, when studying a textbook. When all else fails, we might convert long sentences into very short sentences to clarify our thoughts, recombining them in the light of our new understanding later.

We can shorten sentences:

How to Write Shorter Sentences

Sentences containing and, but, or or can often be shortened by ending the sentence before these words, and beginning a new one after capitalising, for instance:
Jack went up the hill and Jill went up the hill. r_arrow.gif Jack went up the hill. And Jill went up the hill.
This and other sentences illustrate the technique; they aren't necessarily good or better sentences. In real life, we can use these techniques on pythonic sentences to make them more effective. Of course, we would say the above sentence, as learned in nursery school! (Jack and Jill went up the hill.)

Sentences containing subordinating conjunctions such as while or although can be split by dropping the subordinating conjunction, and changing the comma to a full stop. For instance:
He ate a hearty meal, although he was sentenced to die the next day. r_arrow.gif He ate a hearty meal. Even though he was sentenced to die the next day.
While mature students should not be encouraged to write like 12 year olds, they should know how to write simple sentences when necessary r_arrow.gif Mature students should not be encouraged to write like 12 year-olds. However, they should know how to write simple sentences when necessary. 


He would not eat his food, because he did not like it. r_arrow.gif He would not eat his food. (For )He did not like it.
They could not give the patient water to drink, because she did not have a swallow reflex. r_arrow.gif They could not give the patient water to drink. She did not have a swallow reflex.


Before he went home, he visited his aunt. r_arrow.gif He went home. Before that, he visited his aunt.
Better: r_arrow.gif He visited his aunt. Then went home. (Change order and omit a pronoun).
She carefully tested the mixture before she injected it into the patient. r_arrow.gifShe carefully tested the mixture. Then she injected it into the patient.


Examples of Shorter Sentences

Example 1

While there are exceptions, a re-draught containing shorter words and shorter sentences is much more readable and easy to understand than the original, especially by lay readers. (27 words) x

A re-draught containing shorter words and shorter sentences is much more readable than the original. It is also easier to understand. This is especially true for lay readers. Of course, there are exceptions. tick

Example 2

Such redundant expressions and their attendant “To be” verb, can often be eliminated to good effect, simply by omitting the expression, finding the real subject of the sentence, and using a real verb to make it a "doer".x

Such redundant expressions and their attendant "To be" verb, can often be eliminated to good effect. First, omit the expression. Then, find the real subject of the sentence, and finally, use a real verb to make it a "doer". tick
Example 3
What you need to do in conflict resolution is to bring the people who believe that the answer to their political ambitions will be achieved through violence into a frame of mind that they accept that their political ambitions will be delivered by politics. (44 words) x

To resolve conflict, you need to bring those people who believe violence is the answer to their political ambitions to believe they can achieve them better through politics. tick
Or
What you need to do in conflict resolution is to bring the people who believe that the answer to their political ambitions will be achieved through violence into a different frame of mind. One in which they accept that their political ambitions will be delivered by politics. tick

Or
What you need to do in conflict resolution is to affect a certain group of people. That is, those people who believe that the answer to their political ambitions will be achieved through violence. They need to be brought into a frame of mind that they accept that their political ambitions will be delivered by politics. tick

Or
To resolve conflict you need to affect some people. Those people who believe violence will get them what they want. These need to be persuaded that their aims are best met by politics. tick


Use the Positive Rather Than The Negative

You can understand positive statements more easily than negative ones because the positive tells you what to do or think, instead of telling you what not to do or think. Negated statements leave what to do a mystery. They are words with a negative prefix. For instance, unclear, unhappy and inadvisable. Or they are clauses with a negative word, such as no or not. Even words in positive form can express a negative idea. For instance, unless means if not, so its meaning is negative. Positive expressions and ideas are much easier to read because you need to make fewer steps to understand. To read a negated expression, you must take two steps. First you need to understand the positive. Then you must negate it to produce the negative. Having to take an extra step, you are more likely to misunderstand. Even if this causes you only a moments hesitation, the flow of reading is broken.

While this uses familiar words:
It is not easy to understand unclear writing.x

It is harder to understand than positive words:
It is not easy to understand dense writing.x
because dense is positive.

Even better is to make the sentence positive, by removing the idea not dense, and replacing it with clear:
It is easy to understand clear writing. tick

We can read this positive form straight through without hesitating because we do not have to decode the negatives.
Example 2


The degree of  misunderstanding of your writing is increased by your use of non-simple words. x

Removing the nominalization, misunderstanding, we get:
Readers will misunderstand your writing to the degree you use non-simple words.x

And being positive:
Readers understand your writing better when you use simple words. tick

Example 3

This example comes from nominalizations. The sentence has been cleaned up, but it is still hard to understand because of the negative expressions.
You should avoid long sentences without considering your readers, unless you write such sentences infrequently. s2

If we avoid long sentences, then we write shorter sentences. unless you write such sentences infrequently, can be written in positive form as: you can write the occasional long sentence. Putting this together, we have:
Write shorter sentences suited to your reader's ability and willingness to understand. However, you can write the occasional long sentence. tick

Avoid Unnecessary Words

The more words we need to read to understand a sentence, the harder it is to grasp its meaning. This is especially true when the extra words supply no extra meaning. The following table gives examples of wordy ways of saying what we could have said just as clearly in fewer words.
Wordy Expressions
Wordy Better
as a consequence of because, for
commensurate with consistent with
despite the fact that although, despite
for the purpose of to
if this is not the case if not
if this is the case if so
in accordance with following
in conjunction with with
in order to to
in the eventuality of if
in the light of according to
in view of the fact that because
on the assumption that if
on the subject of about, concerning
prior to before
to the degree that
relating to about
under any other circumstances than unless, except
with reference to about, concerning

Some wordy expressions can simply be deleted. 
Wordy Expressions
Wordy Expression ExampleImproved
the amount of The amount of disagreement between the two groups is excessive.The two groups disagree excessively.
the case of In the case of Jack, we are undecided. s3We are undecided about Jack s1
the characteristics of They are studying the characteristics of the problem.s3They are studying the problem. s1
the definition of The definition of mind is that which is non-physical.Mind is that which is non-physical.
the issue of Dealing with the issue of corruption of proving problematical.s3Dealing with corruption is proving problematical. s1
the level of The level of polution in the county is very high.s3Polution is the county is very high.s1
the nature of The nature of the misuse of our products makes us concerned.s3The misuse of our products makes us concerned.s1
the occurrence of The occurrence of high levels of radiation in the food results from carelessness at the plant.s3High levels of radiation in the food results from carelessness at the plant.s1
Radiation in the food is due to carelessness at the plant. s1
the system of The system of doctrine is heresy. s3
Students may notice in the course of discussion that the judicial branch appears the least affected by the system of checks and balances.s3
The doctrine is heresy. s1
Students may notice in the course of discussion that the judicial branch appears the least affected by checks and balances.s1
the use of New regulations governing the use of child car seats came into force on 18 September 2006. s3New regulations governing child car seats came into force on 18 September 2006.s1

Adjectives and Adverbs



Noun Chains

A noun chain is a group of nouns such as:
The last noun is the real one: the rest are nouns acting as adjectives.


Avoid Jargon

Jargon is a special vocabulary used within a group to improve communication. Plumbers, doctors, lawyers, and others, use special words which help them in their activities. The words might be unfamiliar to outsiders, or familiar words with a different meaning. When a jargon word fills a gap in the language, it becomes a part of the language.

When jargon is used outside the group, they indicate:
In addition, some writers will use jargon to try to impress their readers. This use of jargon is often vague and confusing.

Sample Jargon Expressions
Expression Meaning Example Comment
feedback comments Please send feedback.
The word feedback comes from electronics where positive feedback results in overload, and negative feedback controls and stabilizes the system.

In the example, it means comments.
input comments, contribute The group is invited to give their input.
In the example, the word input means comments.
adequate enough We have adequate supplies.
In these examples, a big jargon word is used instead of a shorter familiar word.
entitlement right It is your entitlement to work safely.
funded paid for The project is funded by the government.
geared suited to, aimed at The plan is geared to students. In the example, geared to is unclear, it could have either of the two meanings suggested.
interface interact, work with, meet We need to interface with security. interface is a pompous way of saying work with, or meet.
networking building relationships with groups of people, building contacts I found a job through networking.
networking, from computing, is an impressive way of referring to contacts.
meltdown
  • melting of control rods in a nuclear reactor, with serious consequences;
  • collapse, coming to an end;
  • extremely angry;
  • serious failure of mental abilities;
In urban areas, family life is in meltdown. Because its main use is very dramatic, it is used to dramatize many other situations and states.
operational working
The system is now operational.
Again, a big jargon word for a simpler, clearer Anglo-Saxon one.
on the back of because of, after Temperatures are rising on the back of increased CO2 emissions. The expression is vague, so we do not know if the one causes the other; both have a common cause; or they are just correlated.
significant big, probably caused by something other than chance.
The new drug is significantly better than the previous one.
In the examples, both these words with a familiar meaning are used in their scientific sense, misleading the reader. If one drug is significantly better, we would expect it to cure a lot more people, but used in its scientific sense, significantly better could mean only a small number might benefit. And, in the smoking example, it seems obvious that smoking is addictive. Drug companies have sometimes described drugs as non-addictive even when such drugs are habit forming, or cause a compulsive need.
addictive causes physical withdrawal symptoms, habit forming, causes a compulsive need.
Smoking is not addictive.

Avoid Foreign Words and Expressions

Foreign Expression Meaning Example Comment
ad hoc for this purpose or occasion only, and without considering wider implications;
improvised
We were able to find only an ad hoc solution to the problem. ad hoc seems to fill a gap in English when it means something like special.
bona fide genuine We are seeking bona fide applicants. Use genuine.
carte blanche a free hand He's been given carte blanche in this investigation.
c (circa) about I went there circa 1985
Use about.
eg (exempli gratia) for example He likes to eat vegetables, eg peas and carrots. A list of examples beginning with eg, does not end in etc! [eg is written e.g. in the USA]
en bloc all together or at the same time The crowd surged en bloc out the cinema.
et al and others After speaking to Bill, et al, he knew what he should do.
etc and so on, and the rest He filled his backpack with food, water, clothes, etc.
ie that is The committee, ie the Ethics Committee, is set to meet later today. Used when specifying one thing or giving one example. Written i.e. in the USA.
inter alia among other things We want to find out, inter alia, why the flours had died.
modus operandi way of working His modus operandi was to work all night and sleep all day.
per for each The UN distributed two pounds of flour per refugee.
per capita per person Incomes rose 20% per capita during the period.
per se intrinsically To err is to be human per se.
pp (per pro) done with the permission and authority of another pp Roger Snout, Managing Director
proxy substitute

qed proved as required As everyone is mortal and Betty is a person, she will die, QED.
sic as written by the original author I is [sic] here to please.

sine die indefinitely People receive this pension sine die.
vis a vis face to face; regarding; opposite We wish to compare the health of the English vis a vis the health of the French
viz namely, used to give a specific description or explanation of something previously mentioned in general










Words and Expressions Used in Text
Foreign Expression Meaning
cf (confer) compare
ibid same source
loc cit cited above
op cit work quoted
qv (quod vide) see elsewhere in this text
vide see elsewhere in the text.
vs (vide supra) see above, mentioned previously

Examples


Example 1

The promotion of the thin ideal might explain the exponential increase in eating disorders seen in women born in the last half of the 20th century and in part also contributes to the increase in obesity. (36 words)
With a reading ease of 34%, this is difficult to read. Most people won't understand it.

The word, exponential means rapid increase. We can chop most of the words in "seen in women born in the last half of the 20th Century", because this means women under 60, which seems to be the majority of women! To break the sentence in two, we can make the part beginning with "in part" a new sentence. This part seems to mean that "there are more women who are obese".
The promotion of the thin ideal might explain the rapid increase in eating disorders in women. In part, it has also led to more obesity.
The reading ease is now 67%, making it accessible to a lot more readers.

Example 2

He said he would give a further update on force levels later this month, but offered no concrete time frame for when more troops could be withdrawn from a conflict that is largely unpopular in Britain. (35 words)
We can easily split the sentence after the first comma:
He said he would give a further update on force levels later this month. But offered no concrete time frame for when more troops could be withdrawn from a conflict that is largely unpopular in Britain.
This makes the sentences less than 25 words.

The word update is computer jargon, meaning an up-to-date report. "force levels" is a general way of referring to the expected number of troops. A time frame is jargon, and means "a period of time with respect to a project". This is not a concrete time, but a definite one.  The final clause is presumably irrelevant, because whether the war is popular or unpopular, this is not related to the report on troop withdrawals, so we can drop it. Putting this together, we have:
He said he would report on the expected number of troops later this month. But offered no definite timetable for future withdrawals.

Example 3

We will be speaking to a number of people over the course of the day in a bid to establish the woman's last known movements, when she was last seen, and to establish the circumstances of her death. (38 words)
over the course of the day means todayin a bid to establish means to establish.
Substituting these:
We will be speaking to a number of people today to establish the woman's last known movements, when she was last seen, and to establish the circumstances of her death. (32 words)

The sentence is still too long for general readers. We can change "be speaking" to "speak"; "the circumstances of her death" to "why she died". And we can delete "known", because if her movements were known, there would be no reason to "establish them". And "and to establish" can be deleted, as it is a repetition. This gives us:
We will speak to a number of people today to establish the woman's last movements, when she was last seen and why she died. (24 words)
The length is now within the range for general readers.

Example 4

The following sentence was intended for the general reader. About 20% of the population can read it; that is, college graduates.
People with diabetes should try to maintain a healthy weight and eat a diet that is low in fat (particularly saturates) and salt but contains plenty of fruit and vegetables (at least five portions a day) and starchy carbohydrate foods such as bread, rice and pasta (particularly whole-grain versions). (49 words/sentence. Grade Level: 22.54; Reading Ease 20.7; syllables 1.61 )

First let us re-write it with shorter sentences (the words in italics are candidates for change):
People with diabetes should try to maintain a healthy weight. They should eat a diet that is low in fat (particularly saturates) and salt. It should contain plenty of fruit and vegetables (at least five portions a day) and starchy carbohydrate foods such as bread, rice and pasta (particularly whole-grain versions). (17 words/sentence. Grade Level: 9.78; Reading Ease 55; syllables 1.59 )

The wordy, try to maintain can be changed to have. The hard to understand particularly saturates, can be dropped. Because starchy foods are carbohydrates, we can drop carbohydrates.  particularly whole-grain versions can be written as whole-grains are good, using simpler words, and avoiding jargon. After making these changes, we have: 
People with diabetes should have a healthy weight. They should eat a diet that is low in fat and salt. It should contain plenty of fruit and vegetables (at least five portions a day) and starchy foods such as bread, rice and pasta (whole-grains are good). (15.3 words/sentence. Grade Level: 5.78; Reading Ease 81; Syllables 1.34 )

Example 5

The following requires a college education to understand:
In some cases work persons sign away their entitlement to good working conditions for more income in the faulty assumption that by risking their health and safety for an unregulated employer will get them a disproportionate amount of the gains made by ignoring safe systems of work. (47 words/sentence. Grade Level: 21.6; Reading Ease 24; Syllables 1.6)

Splitting the sentence, and marking with italics words intended for revision:
In some cases work persons sign away their entitlement to good working conditions for more income. They do this in the faulty assumption that by risking their health and safety for an unregulated employer will get them a disproportionate amount of the gains made by ignoring safe systems of work.
(47 words/sentence. Grade Level: 12.6; Reading Ease 49.5; Syllables 1.56)
The sentence is still difficult to read.
Using the above points, we can cut the clutter and make the text easier to read.
The re-write produces:
Sometimes workers sign away their rights to good working conditions for more income. They do this on the false belief that they will benefit more by risking their health and safety in return for more pay.
(18 words/sentence. Grade Level: 7; Reading Ease 76; Syllables 1.33)
The new text can be read by a 13 year-old.

Using you and making further changes, we have some text that anyone read easily:
You might be tempted to sign away your right to a safe workplace. You might do this because you believe the greater pay is worth more than the greater risk.
(15 words/sentence. Grade Level: 4.4; Reading Ease 91; Syllables 1.2)

Example 6

If your workplace has a total of five or more persons working in that enterprise including directors, the law states that the company, enterprise or undertaking needs to have a formally considered, written and published safety policy.


If your workplace has five or more workers and directors, the law requires it to have a safety policy. This must be well thought out, in writing, and available to all.

Example 7



Near the town of Baquba, the capital of Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, a roadside bomb struck a minibus killing six people, including four children and two women, and wounding five, police said. (33 words)
The word include means to take in as part of a whole. The reader expects a list of included things to be a part, and not a complete list. In the sentence, the four children and two women are a complete list of the dead. We can therefore drop the confusing word including. For clarity, we might like to change wounding five to wounding five others. 

Near the town of Baquba, the capital of Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, a roadside bomb struck a minibus killing six people -- four children and two women -- and wounding five others, police said.

Example 8

Today's criminal is focused on compromising legitimate web sites to launch attacks on end-users, which underscores the importance of maintaining a strong security posture no matter where you go and what you do on the internet. (36 words; syllables per word: 1.78; Reading Ease: 19.9; Grade: 19.43) s3.gif

Today's criminal misuses honest web sites to trick end-users to give up their personal details. This deception stresses the need for strong security no matter where you go and what you do on the internet. (17 words; syllables per word: 1.62; Reading Ease: 52.73; Grade: 10.13)  s1.gif

Example 9

The study, commissioned by the Government last year after doubts were raised over the reliability of low template DNA testing, made a series of recommendations for improving the collection and interpretation of samples. (Grade: 19.45, Reading Ease: 14.39, 33 words, syllables 1.88)


Last year, after doubts had been raised over the soundness of low template DNA testing the government asked for a study. This study suggested new ways to improve how samplesare collected and interpreted.  (Grade: 9.43, Reading Ease: 57.7, 17 words, syllables 1.56)

Example 10

Human Rights groups such as Amnesty International reported credible information suggesting a programme of "co-ordinated retribution against known and suspected opposition supporters".  (Grade: 21.42, Reading Ease: 0, 22 words, syllables 2.41)


Example 11

Eating just one sausage or around three rashers of bacon a day can increase the risk of developing bowel cancer by a fifth, an expert warned. Just 1.8oz (50g) of processed meat daily increases the chances of getting bowel cancer by around 20%.

Over their lifetime, a person has a 1 in 20 chance of developing bowel cancer. If this risk is increased by 20%, the the risk will be 6 in a 100 compared with 5 in 100. Another way of saying this, is that people who eats one sauseage a day will have a 1% increase in their chance of getting bowel cancer.

Example 12

Indeed, one of the reasons why cultural variables have been neglected in the past is that they are less obtrusive in the way they channel behaviour and govern organizational performance than more explicit, external factors such as organizational structure, control and reward systems and high- level processes of decision- making. (50 words)






Ken Ward's Writing Pages

The Last Place in Space
- by Ken Ward

When pilot Philip Turner is accidentally transported by an anomaly and marooned on an unknown planet, he discovers the planet is threatened by a group of ruthless aliens similarly marooned. With the help of a group of young women with superpowers, and a powerful being called a god, he reluctantly uses his advanced knowledge and technology to help the planet's inhabitants, but will he succeed when outnumbered by aliens, opposed by greedy and squabbling kings, and limited by his gentle nature and moral beliefs? Paperback and Kindle:
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The Last Place in Space