Williams on sentence clarity

Joseph M. Williams’s principles of sentence clarity

Notes from ch. 2 of Joseph M. Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace:

Identify (and make explicit) a sentence’s characters and actions
  • Identify a sentence’s “characters” and “actions.” In general, make the characters the subjects of the sentence, and make those characters’ actions the verbs of the sentence. Note that “characters” can include theories or concepts.
  • Try to revise a sentence’s abstract nouns into specific verbs expressing actions.
  • Suggested method for diagnosing character/action problems: underline the first seven words of a sentence. (1) Have you introduced the sentence’s “character”? (2) Have you named the character’s “action”?

Eliminate useless nominalizations

  • Eliminate useless nominalizations (nouns derived from verbes or adjectives). Examples: conducted (–> to do), loss (–> to lose), concerned (–> to concern), cessation (–> to stop).
  • Some nominalizations are useful. Examples: nominalizations that (1) refer to a previous sentence, linking the sentences to improve coherence; (2) refer to an often-repeated concept.
Other tips for clarity
  • Try to arrange a sentence’s events in a chronological sequence.
  • Avoid unnecessary passive constructions. Examples: (“The contract was breached.” –> “The defendant breached the contract.”)
  • Avoid overly long compound noun phrases.
  • Metadiscourse is language describing what the writer is doing. Examples: “I will explain ….,” “The evidence will show ….,” “In this paper, we investigate ….”