Writing: Clarity

For writers, words are tools.
With every word, phrase, clause and sentence we use, we should be asking, “Is this the right tool for the job? Is the way we have written the sentence the clearest, most concise way to express what we are trying to say?”
There are several danger zones to be mindful of as we are writing for clarity, conciseness and coherence.


The words we choose should communicate just what we mean to communicate — nothing more; nothing less. As noted in “When Words Collide,” choosing the correct verb is a matter of grammar; but choosing the right verb is a matter of conciseness and clarity.

Avoid UP

  • Bob appointed his uncle to head up the committee.
    • Bob appointed his uncle to head the committee.
  • The negligent father finally faced up to his responsibilities.
    • The negligent father finally faced his responsibilities.
  • His incessant questions only served to slow up the meeting.
    • His incessant questions only served to slow the meeting.

Avoid those verbs requiring “up” to complete their meaning. These verbs are not wrong; but they are weak.

  • She suspected the student was making up the excuse.
    • She suspected the student was fabricating the excuse.
  • Business has been picking up since the street opened.
    • Business has improved since the street opened.


Adding the suffix “-ize” to any noun is usually unnecessary, and it often serves to confuse the reader. Nonetheless, some “-ize” words are useful and provide a particular meaning.

Before tacking “-ize” onto a noun, subject it to these three tests.

  1. Is it listed in the dictionary as an acceptable word?
  2. Does it have a unique meaning? (e.g. pasteurize)
  3. Does it have a sound that it not displeasing?


That serves a range of grammatical functions.

  1. Adjective: That man is going to fall off of his bike.
  2. Demonstrative pronoun: That is the last thing he will do.
  3. Relative pronoun: Harvard is the university that he wants to attend.
  4. Conjunction: My brother admitted that he is always wrong.

As a pronoun & conjunction, that can often be eliminated.

  • My brother admitted he is always wrong.
  • Harvard is the university he wants to attend.

Other times removing that requires a sentence be re-written.

  • She treasured the boat that was built by her father.
  • She treasured the boat her father built.

To determine if that is necessary, ask these two questions:

  • Can that be eliminated with no change in the meaning of the sentence?
  • Can the clause introduced by that be expressed more concisely?


A modifier must point directly and clearly to what it modifies. Place the modifier next to or as close as possible to what it is modifying.

Problem modifiers: only, nearly, almost, just, scarcely, even, hardly and merely.


Only the coach lead the team to victory.

  • No one else can lead them.

The coach can only lead the team to victory.

  • The coach can’t do anything more than lead them.

The coach can lead only the team to victory.

  • The coach can’t lead anyone else.

Just the swimmer missed her chance to compete in the race.

  • No one else missed a chance.


The swimmer just missed her chance to compete in the race.

  • The swimmer barely or recently missed her chance

The swimmer missed her chance just to compete in the race.

  • The swimmer missed her chance simply to compete.

The swimmer missed her chance to compete in just the race.

  • The swimmer missed only once chance to compete: the race. Or she missed the chance to limit her competing to one event: the race.


Phrases and clauses should also be placed next to or near what they modify.

  • Several of the children were confused by math in the class.
  • Rising to their feet, the fight song roared from the fans.
  • Joe found a twenty-dollar bill walking home.

To learn more about misplaced modifiers, check this out.


A modifier “dangles” when what it is supposed to modify is not part of the sentence.

  • Before going on vacation, the bills need to be paid.
  • After cutting the grass, the garden was weeded.


Split verbs lead to incoherence. In most cases, it is best to keep auxiliary verbs next to the main verb and to avoid splitting infinitives.

  • The students who have been, for more than a week, waiting for tickets were disappointed with the news.
  • The burglar was, as far as the detectives could determine, hiding somewhere in the building.
  • Splitting infinitives, though common practice is grammatically incorrect and makes for sloppy writing.
  • For the information to truly be valuable, he will need to verify the source.
  • Sally intended to fully explain the proposal, but she missed the meeting.


A mood of the verb (to be) that expresses a condition or supposition that is contrary to fact or highly improbable (a wish).

It is also used to express: DOUBTS, UNCERTAINTIES, REGRETS, DESIRES.

With subjunctive mood, use WERE instead of WAS.

  • If I were rich, I would still teach grammar.
  • The students looked at me as if I were insane.
  • She wishes she were home in bed instead of in class.

BUT: If the ex-convict was involved in the robbery, he probably has left town.

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