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Gary B. Larson

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Garbl's Plain Language Writing Guide


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Writing clear, simple sentences

Short sentences | Active voice | Pronouns | Punctuation

The simple, declarative sentence is the easiest to understand: Someone (or something) does (or is) something. Sentences that differ from that simple structure may cause readability problems.

Be logical, literal and precise in your use of language. Especially for readers who may have limited English proficiency, pay close attention to the literal meaning of each sentence you write and the words in them. But one important reference book on writing to meet the needs of nonnative speakers and translators provides this Cardinal Rule of Global English: "Don't make any change that will sound unnatural to native speakers of English." So, either improve the sentence in a different way or leave it alone.

Keep them short

Readers can only take in so much new information at once. Short, simple sentences are less likely than long, compound and complex sentences to include ambiguities that hinder translation and reduce readability. Make the average sentence length in your document 20 words. Readers can understand some longer sentences (up to 30 words) if they are well written and use familiar terms.

Try to limit most sentences to one idea. Break long sentences with more than one idea into two or more sentences.

  • Instead of:
    The parameters of your responsibility are included in the job description you received on your initial day of work at the association.
  • Use:
    Your job description lists your responsibilities. You got your job description the first day you worked here.

Also, link your ideas by correctly using words such as that, which, who and whom. See the that, which, who, whom entry in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual.

The next section, Using Suitable Words, provides advice on shortening verbose sentences by cutting out unnecessary, useless words; redundant ideas, words and phrases; and weak, abstract and wordy noun phrases.

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Use active voice verbs--unless there's a strong reason to use passive

Putting the "doer"--the person or thing doing the action in a sentence--in front of its verb will usually ensure the verb is in the active voice. The "doer" in active sentences is usually named or described at the start of the sentence. The active is more direct; it helps drive home the message. Active verbs usually suggest that someone is doing something: collapse, confuse, jump. The passive can obscure the message.

Active voice is usually more concise than passive voice. Sentences that are passive instead of active usually contain forms of the verb to be: am, are, is, was, were, be, been, being. And those verbs usually come before verbs than end in -ed or -en: carried, taken.

  • Instead of:
    The fund-raising campaign was approved by the Executive Committee.
  • Use:
    The Executive Committee approved the fund-raising campaign.
  • Instead of:
    Complaints are taken seriously by the Parks Department.
  • Use:
    The Parks Department takes complaints seriously.

Passive voice may be suitable for one of these reasons: when you don't know the doer or actor, when the doer or actor is unimportant to the point you're making, or when the emphasis is clearly not on the actor but the acted upon.

Also see active vs. passive verbs in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual.

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Avoid pronoun ambiguity

When you use a pronoun, make sure readers can identify the noun it represents. Pronouns like it, its, they and them can be confusing if readers can't figure out what it or its is or who they and them are.

Especially for readers with limited English proficiency, try repeating nouns instead of referring to them with pronouns like she, they, this or these. Also, avoid using the pronouns this, that, these and those alone; instead, use them as adjectives before a noun:

  • Instead of:
    Please send them to us.
  • Use:
    Please mail those identification forms to the Licensing Office at ...
  • Instead of:
    Michelle researched and wrote the speech herself, which everyone thought was impressive.
  • Use:
    Everyone was impressed with the speech that Michelle researched and wrote herself.

Also, avoid using ambiguous double negatives. See negative in Garbl's Editorial Style Manual.

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Use correct punctuation consistently

Punctuation shows how words and strings of words are related, separated and emphasized. Its main purpose is to help the reader understand the structure of the sentences you write. Punctuation also replaces the voice inflection, pauses and hand gestures we use when we talk.

Consistent, accurate use of punctuation marks is important. But excessive use of commas, parentheses, semicolons and dashes may signal long or complicated sentences.

The period is the most effective punctuation mark in clear, concise writing. It should be the most common mark on the page. But consistent, correct use of other marks also is important. Excessive use of commas, parentheses, semicolons and dashes may signal long or complicated sentences.

Inserting optional commas after introductory phrases and before conjunctions (and, but, or) in a series of things can help, especially to language translators and readers with limited English proficiency.

Similarly, hyphens are not needed after most prefixes, but they can reduce confusion when used in similar or unfamiliar words: She recovered her health. She re-covered the torn seat. Avoid using hyphens to divide a word at the end of a line in unjustified text. Use of hyphens in compound words can aid reader understanding: He is a small-business man. He is a foreign-car dealer.

Also, avoid using quotation marks to highlight words or phrases; save them for enclosing quotations and identifying certain composition titles. To highlight terms, use boldfacing, italics, color, font size or font type,

For more guidelines on using punctuation, see punctuation and entries for specific punctuation marks in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual: period, comma, hyphen, quotation marks.

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