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How to Construct Clear Sentences and Paragraphs
Elena GAGIU
« Universitatea din Piteşti »
This article aims at showing how to build clear sentences and paragraphs. This procedure involves
adaptation to the knowledge level of the subjects. In adapting sentences, one should make them
short , especially when communicating with readers who are characterized by low reading ability.
Short sentences can be made in two ways: by limiting sentence content or using words
economically. Limiting content involves making separate sentences of the thoughts one
communicates. Using words economically involves looking for shorter ways of saying things. Some
specific suggestions are the following: (1) Avoid cluttering phrases; (2) Eliminate surplus words;
(3) Avoid roundabout ways of saying things; (4) Avoid unnecessary repetition. Every item that is
communicated should be given the right emphasis which is determined by the way points are
combined. Thus, short sentences emphasize points, longer sentences deemphasize points. Sentences
must have unity and it can be achieved by not combining unrelated thoughts, by eliminating
excessive detail and by avoiding illogical constructions. One should construct paragraphs designed
to communicate. They must be given good movement, ensuring that they move step by step toward
the goal. Clear paragraphs involve logic and imagination. Such paragraphs have unity. It means
they are built around a single topic or idea. Generally, they are short.
I. Adaptation
Constructing clear sentences involves adaptation. That is, it involves fitting sentences
to the minds of the intended readers and it requires some analysis of the readers. One should
consider their knowledge of the subject, their education and their intelligence. Then, with this
information in mind, one should construct the sentences that are likely to communicate best with
them. Thus, in writing to the lower levels, one should use simpler sentence designs. In writing to the
higher levels, one can use more complex designs.
In adapting sentences, one should aim a little below the level of one’s reader. Therefore,
some degree of simplification is best for all readers.
II. Emphasis on Short Sentences
The stress should be laid on short sentences which communicate better because of mind
limitations. The more words and the more relationships in a sentence, the greater the possibility for
misunderstanding. What constitutes a short, readable sentence, of course, is related to the reader’s
ability. According to readability studies, writing intended to communicate with the middle-level
adult reader should average around 16 to 18 words per sentence. For more advanced readers, the
average may be higher. For lower levels, it should be lower.
The emphasis on short sentences does not mean that occasionally one may not use long
sentences which are useful in subordinating information. Sometimes the information needed to
complete a thought requires a long sentence. What one should be concerned about is the average.
Writing in simple, short sentences involves two basic techniques. The first is to limit
sentence content and the second is the technique of expressing thoughts in fewer words, that is of
economizing on words used.
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II.1. Limiting Sentence Content
Limiting sentence content is largely a matter of mentally selecting thought units and making
separate sentences of most of them. When thoughts are closely related or when one wants to
deemphasize content, thoughts should be combined into one sentence.
As with most writing suggestions, however, one can overdo writing short sentences whose
succession can give the impression of elementary writing, as well as draw the attention from the
content to the choppy effect of the sentences. One should work to avoid these effects by varying the
lengths and ordering the parts of one’s sentences.
II.2. Economizing on Words
Economizing on words used is the second way to shorten sentences. Anything one writes
can be expressed in many ways, some shorter than others. In general, the shorter wordings save the
reader time, are clearer and make reading more interesting. An often-used uneconomical wording is
the cluttering phrase which should be replaced by shorter wording without loss of meaning.
Although the shorter forms may save only a word or two, the little savings add up.
Here is an example of a cluttering phrase:
In the event that payment is not made by December, our collaboration will cease.
The beginning phrase is uneconomical. The word if can substitute for it without loss of
meaning:
If payment is not made by December, our collaboration will cease.
A review of the following partial list with suggested substitutions should help one reduce
them in one’s writing.
Cluttering Phrase
Shorter Substitution
Along the lines of
At the present time
For the purpose of
For the reason that
In accordance with
In the amount of
In the meantime
In the near future
In the neighbourhood of
In very cases
In view of the fact that
On the basis of
On the occasion of
With regard to
With a view to
In spite of the fact that
Like
Now
For
Because, Since
By
For
Meanwhile
Soon
About
Seldom
Since, Because
By
On
About
To
Even though
To write economically, one should eliminate the words that add nothing to the sentence
meaning. Sometimes, eliminating the surplus words requires recasting the sentence. But sometimes,
they can just be left out.
This is an example of surplus wording from a business report:
It will be noted that these records show an increase in special appropriations.
The beginning words of the sentences say little that is not implied. Dropping these words,
the sentence becomes stronger and with no loss of meaning:
These records show an increase in special appropriations.
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The following sentences illustrate the use of surplus words. In each case, the surplus words
can be eliminated without changing the meaning.
Contains Surplus Words
Eliminates Surplus Words
He ordered desks that are of the executive type.
He ordered executive-type desks.
There are two rules that should be considered.
Two rules should be considered.
In the period between March and May we
Between March and May we detected
detected the problem.
the problem.
In addition to these defects, numerous other
Numerous other defects mark the
defects mark the operating procedure.
operating procedure.
I am prepared to report to the effect that sales
I am prepared to report that sales
increased.
increased.
As we have noticed, one can write anything in many ways. Some of the ways are direct and
to the point. Some cover the same ground in a slow, roundabout way. Usually, the direct ways are
shorter and communicate better.
Here is an example of a roundabout construction:
The department budget can be observed to be decreasing each new year.
Do the words can be observed to be decreasing get to the point directly? Is the idea of
observing really essential? Is new needed? A more direct and better sentence is this one:
The department budget decreases each year.
Roundabout
Direct and to the Point
During the time she was employed by this company,
Mrs. Craw was absent once.
The president is of the opinion that
the tax was paid.
It is essential that the income be used
to retire the debt.
In view of the fact that she was good at foreign
languages, they asked her to join their project.
While employed by this company,
Mrs. Craw was absent once.
The president believes the tax was
paid.
The income must be used to retire the
debt.
Since she was good at foreign
languages, they asked her to join their
project.
He criticized everyone he came in contact with.
He criticized everyone he met.
Reference is made to your report in which you
Your report concluded that the warranty
concluded that the warranty was worthless.
was worthless.
The price increase will afford the company
The price increase will enable the
an opportunity to retire the debt.
company to retire the debt.
Repeating words obviously adds length to the sentence. So does repeating an idea.
Sometimes repetition serves a purpose, as when it is used for emphasis or for special effect. But all
too often it is without purpose. One should try to avoid such repetitions.
Examples of unnecessary repetitions and ways to cut them are these:
Needless repetition
Repetition Eliminated
In my opinion I think the plan is sound.
Please endorse your name on the back
of this check.
We should plan in advance for the future.
By acting now, we can finish sooner
than if we wait until a later date.
One should know the basic fundamentals of
clear writing.
I think the plan is sound.
Please endorse this check.
We should plan.
By acting now, we can finish sooner.
One should know the fundamentals of
clear writing.
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As a matter of interest, I am interested
in learning your procedure.
We must assemble together at nine o’clock a.m.
in the morning.
At the present time, we are conducting two clinics.
Our new model is longer in length than the
old one.
If you are not satisfied, return it back to us.
He stated that he felt that we were responsible.
I am interested in learning your
procedure.
We must assemble at nine o’clock a.m.
We are conducting two clinics.
Our new model is longer in length than
the old one.
If you are not satisfied, return it to us.
He stated he felt we were responsible.
III. Giving Emphasis to the Content
Writing clear sentences also involves giving the right emphasis to content. Any written
business communication contains a number of items of information, not all equally important.
One’s task as a writer is to determine the importance of each item and then to form one’s sentences
to communicate this importance. Short simple sentences carry more emphasis than long involved
ones. Long sentences deemphasize contents. If two ideas are presented equally (in independent
clauses for example), they get about equal emphasis. But if they are not presented equally (for
example, in an independent and a dependent clause), one gets more emphasis than the other.
Determining emphasis is a matter of good judgement. The point is clear: one’s choice of
arrangement makes a difference. Items can be made to stand out, they can be treated equally or they
can be deemphasized. What one does must not be a matter of chance, but the result of good sound
thinking.
IV. Giving Unity to the Sentence
Good sentences must have unity. For a sentence to have unity, all of its parts must combine,
to form one clear thought. In other words, all the things put together as a sentence should have a
good reason for being together. Violations of unity in sentence construction fall into three
categories:
(1) unrelated ideas,
(2) excessive detail,
(3) illogical constructions.
IV.1. Unrelated Ideas
Unrelated ideas in a sentence are the most obvious violation of unity. Of course, putting two
or more ideas in a sentence is not grammatically wrong. But the ideas must have a reason for being
together. They must combine to complete the single goal of the sentence.
One can give unity to sentences that contain seemingly unrelated ideas in three basic ways:
(a) One can put ideas in separate sentences; (b) One can make one of the ideas subordinate to the
other; (c) One can add words that show how the ideas are related. The revisions of the following
sentence illustrate the first two of these techniques:
Mr. Jordan is our sales manger and he has a degree in law.
Perhaps the two ideas are related, but the words do not tell how. It might be better to make
each into separate sentences:
Mr. Jordan is our sales manger. He has a law degree.
Or the two ideas could be kept in one sentence by subordinating one idea to the other. In this
way, the main clause provides the unity of the sentence:
Mr. Jordan, our sales manger has a law degree.
Adding words to show relationship of the thoughts is illustrated in the following example:
Our production increased in May and our equipment is wearing out.
The sentence has two ideas that do not seem to be related. The sentence could be corrected
by changing the words to show how:
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Even though our equipment is wearing out, our production increased in May.
Unrelated
Improved
Our territory is the southern half of the state
and our salespeople cannot cover it thoroughly.
Our territory is the southern half of the
state. Our salespeople cannot cover it
thoroughly.
As a result of our concentration on
energy-saving products, 70 percent of our
business comes from them.
Operation of the press is simple, but, like any
machine, it will not work well unless it is
maintained.
We concentrate on energy-saving products and
70 percent of our business is from them.
Operation of the press is simple, but no
machine will work well unless it is maintained.
IV. 2. Excessive Details
Excessive details in one sentence tend to hide the central thought. If the detail is important,
it is better to put it in a separate sentence.
Excessive detail
Improved
In 1978, when I, a small-town girl from a
middle-class family, began my studies at
State University, which is widely recognized
for its accounting program, I set my goal for
a career with a major accounting firm.
A small-town girl from a middle-class
family, I entered State University in
1978. I selected the school because of
its widely recognized accounting
program. From the beginning, my goal
was a career with a major accounting firm.
IV.3 Illogical Constructions
Illogical constructions destroy sentence unity. Primarily, they result from illogical thinking.
The first step that should be taken in order to avoid illogical constructions is to use logical thinking.
Active and passive voice in the same sentence can violate unity.
One achieves unity by making both clauses active. The sentence unity is destroyed by mixed
constructions which do not make a clear and logical thought.
Illogical Construction
Improved
Job rotation is when you train people
Job rotation is a training method
by moving them from job to job.
involving moving people from job to job.
Knowing that she had objected to the price
Because we knew she had objected to the
was the reason we permitted her to return
price, we permitted her to return the
the goods.
goods.
I never knew an executive who was interested
I never knew an executive who was interested
in helping workers who had got into problems
in helping worried workers with their problems.
that caused them to worry.
My education was completed in 1988 and
I completed my education in 1988 and then
then I began work as a sales representative
I began work as a sales representative for an
for an international company.
international company.
Clear writing requires that one follows the established rules of grammar which are not
arbitrary. They are based on custom and logical relationships between words. In general, they are
based on the needs for clear communication. For example, dangling modifiers confuse meaning by
modifying the wrong words. So do unparallel constructions, pronouns without antecedents and
subject-predicate disagreements. The point is that the rules of grammar are useful in writing clear
sentences.
273
V. Paragraphing
Paragraphing is also important to clear communication. Paragraphs show the reader where
topics begin and end, thus helping them to organize the information in the mind. Also, paragraphing
helps one to make the ideas stand out. Designing paragraphs involves one’s ability to organize and
relate information. It involves logic and imagination.
V.1 Giving Unity to the Paragraph
Like sentences, paragraphs should have unity. When applied to paragraph structure, unity
means that the paragraph builds around a single topic or idea. Unity is not always easy to determine
as it can vary in breadth. Paragraph unity concerns a narrow topic.
V. 2 Keeping the Paragraph Short
As a general rule, paragraphs should be short as they show organization better than long
ones. Most readers prefer to read short paragraphs. How long a paragraph should be, of course,
depends on its contents, on what must be included to achieve unity. Even so, readability research
has suggested an average length of eight lines for longer papers such as reports. Shorter paragraphs
are appropriate for letters. One-line paragraphs are essentially appropriate in business letters as a
means of emphasizing a major point. Or a one-line paragraph may be all that is needed for a short
goodwill closing comment.
V.3 Giving Movement to the Paragraph
Each good paragraph should move an additional step toward the goal. Good report writing
has movement. The sentences must move step by step to reach the paragraph goal and the
paragraphs move step by step to reach the overall goal.
V.4 Making Good Use of Topic Sentences
Topic sentences can help in making good paragraphs. The topic sentence expresses the main
idea of a paragraph and the remaining sentences build around and support it. Using topic sentences
forces one to find the central idea of each paragraph. Another advantage is that it helps one to have
a check of paragraph unity. But not every paragraph must have a topic sentence. Some, for
example, serve to introduce ideas, to relate succeeding items or to present an assortment of facts
that lead to no conclusion.
The placement of topic sentences depends on the subject matter and the writer’s plan. Some
subject matter develops best if details are presented first, followed by a conclusion or summary
statement (the topic sentence). Others develop best when introduced by the summary or concluding
statement.
The most common of all paragraph plans begins with the topic sentence and follows with the
supporting material. As this arrangement fits most units of business information, one should find it
useful.
The second most common paragraph arrangement places the topic sentence at the end,
usually as a conclusion. These paragraphs usually present the supporting details first and from these
details, they lead readers to the conclusion.
Often, such paragraphs begin with an introductory sentence that may appear to be a topic sentence,
but the final sentence covers the real essence of the paragraph.
A third paragraph arrangement places the topic sentence somewhere within. This
arrangement is used rarely, usually for special effect.
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Bibliography:
Coşer, Cornelia, Vulcănescu, Rodica, Developing Competence in English, Polirom, Bucureşti,
2004.
Jespersen, Otto, Growth and Structure of the English Language, New York, 1956.
Lesikar, V., Raymond, Basic Business Communication, Editura Irwin, Illinois, 1988.
Stannard, W. Allen, Living English Structure, Longman, 1959.
Vince, Michael, Advanced Language Practice, London, 2004.
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