Editorial services by Laura E. Goodin

Crystal-Clear Sentences
by Laura E. Goodin (©2009)

Each sentence you write is your best guess at helping someone understand one of your thoughts. You're at a disadvantage in this process: you already know what you mean, but your reader does not. You want to make each sentence so clear, so very straightforward, that your reader can have no doubt at all about what you want to say.

The secret to making a sentence clear is to ask yourself: who does what? Particularly in academic writing, it's common to bury this information under a lot of words that really don't add any understanding. You, however, are not interested in looking like a big shot — you are interested in getting your point across. So you are going to make sure that each sentence clearly tells who...does...what. Here are some examples:

The population was severely affected by the necessity for the government's recent decision to increase taxation on a number of essential commodities.

The government raised taxes on many necessities, which severely affected the population.

Who? The government. Does what? Raises taxes. Once that's straight, the rest of the sentence becomes a lot easier to wrestle with.

The Black Death, arriving in Europe and being one of the fundamental causes of the breakdown of feudalism, had horrible symptoms that caused great fear in the populace.

The Black Death was one of the fundamental causes of the breakdown of feudalism in Europe.

The problem here is that this is really two sentences. The "who" is the same for both: the Black Death. (Strictly speaking, it's a "what", not a "who", but you get my point.) After that, it gets complicated. What is the Black Death doing? Helping break down feudalism, and causing great fear in the populace because of its horrible symptoms.

Are the two things that the Black Death is doing related? Actually, no. The horrible symptoms and the fear were not really a fundamental cause of the breakdown of feudalism — the labour shortage due to all those dead people was. So pick one "who does what" and limit your sentence to that. There will be time later in the paper to talk about what life was like in the midst of the Black Death. Right now, you're talking about the breakdown of feudalism.

Mine subsidence is widely regarded as a serious environmental issue.

According to a 2003 survey (Goodin, 2003), 78 percent of the population of Brookside, NSW considers mine subsidence to be a serious environmental issue.

Why is the "after" sentence better? The first one looks pretty straightforward, doesn't it? Well...no. Ask your instructors what upsets them the most about the papers they get, and chances are it will be appeals to the authority of some phantom "everybody says". This masquerades as "it is widely regarded", "authorities have said", "many believe", and a thousand other disguises. Every single one of them screams that you haven't done your research and you're not thinking clearly — neither of which is going to endear you to your instructor.

So, who does what? In the "before" version, nobody does anything. What is mine subsidence doing? Uh...being regarded. Who is doing the regarding? Uh...don't know. Weak, unclear, and lazy! The "after" version has energy and rigor! Who? Seventy-eight percent of the people in Brookside, NSW. What are they doing? Considering mine subsidence to be a serious environmental issue. Your instructor breathes a sigh of relief.

(By the way, I made that statistic up for the purposes of this article — do not cite it in one of your papers!)

Now you do it!
How would you rewrite this sentence?

Having given me a generous scholarship, my gratitude to the club is immense and tomorrow I will be leaving for France.

Who is giving the scholarship? What is "my gratitude" doing? Who is leaving for France? (I've put one way to rewrite the sentence in fine print at the end of this article.*)

In conclusion
"Who does what" is not necessarily the method for every single sentence you will ever write. However, it's a good place to start when you need to make your writing more clear. It helps you figure out exactly what you want to say. It keeps you focused when you feel overwhelmed and don't know how to start. It helps you spot sloppy thinking. And it makes your writing more sharp and powerful.

*On the eve of my departure for France, I would like to say that I am very grateful for the club's generous scholarship.

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