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13.04 Vocabulary

(a) Use simple, familiar words and phrases for clarity. In the list below, the column on the right gives a more straightforward and often shorter way to express the same idea:

Examples Straightforward forms
advance planning planning
After this is accomplished Then
at an early date soon
facilitate help, make possible
five in number five
in the absence of without
It would be appropriate for me
to begin by saying that
First,
owing to the fact that because, since

(b) Choose verbs over verb-noun phrases to make your sentences clear and concise. For example, readers will understand your message more readily if you replace the phrase on the left with the word on the right:

Verb-noun phrases Verbs
carry out an examination of examine
effect an improvement to improve
ensure maintenance of maintain
give consideration to consider
make an enquiry enquire

The following sentence becomes much more transparent if the two verb-noun phrases are replaced with verbs:

not

  • The recommendation of the committee favoured continuation of the applied research.

but

  • The committee recommended that the applied research continue.

(c) Concise writing is generally clearer. Cut out unnecessary words to shorten sentences.

For example, write

  • With fewer younger workers entering the job market, unemployment may drop over the next decade.

not

  • Slower labour force growth may attenuate somewhat the problem of unemployment over the next decade, since there will no longer be a need to absorb large numbers of new workers entering the labour market.

(d) Avoid jargon and unfamiliar acronyms or expressions, especially when writing for the public. Even for internal documents, consider using an alternative expression if some of your readers may not know the specialized term. Expressions such as roll out, stakeholder and re-engineering may be unclear except to a specialized audience and tend to be overused.

Sometimes an unfamiliar term is best omitted altogether. For example, the following sentence contains a Latin phrase—ceteris paribus (meaning "other things being equal")—which will confuse many readers and which adds little if any meaning:

  • From our perspective, Option 2 would seem to offer the most benefits and, ceteris paribus, would be more effective in ensuring the resolution of any problems.

The sentence could be written more clearly and concisely as follows:

  • We feel that Option 2 would be the most effective way of solving any problems.

Administrative jargon and officialese can cloud the message and make it incomprehensible to many readers:

not

  • The challenges of the position involve ensuring the provision of delivery of the program in the most efficient manner possible in light of an ever-changing client profile which is impacted on by the adjustments to the programs necessitated by changing federal legislation and by the incidence of federal cutbacks in resource allotments.

but

  • The challenges of the position include delivering the program as efficiently as possible in light of an ever-changing client profile, changes in federal legislation and resource cutbacks.

(e) Explain complicated ideas. Make sure that complex notions or subtle distinctions are clarified. The following sentence requires specialized knowledge on the reader’s part:

  • Holders of locked-in RRSPs, currently limited to purchases of life annuities with those funds, will be allowed to purchase life income funds.

Is it clear to the reader how "locked-in RRSPs" differ from other RRSPs and what the distinction between "life annuities" and "life income funds" is? If not, explain these notions before going on.

(f) Avoid chains of nouns. Nouns can modify other nouns in English, but three or more nouns in a row can obscure the meaning: the reader has to differentiate between the concepts and decide how the nouns are interrelated. Examples of noun chains abound in administrative writing:

  • departmental expenditure increase review
  • investment income deferral advantage
  • post-selection feedback session
  • unemployment insurance premium rate increases

It is easier for the reader to understand the message if some of the nouns are linked by prepositions such as of, for, to and in. The first example could be reformulated as "a review of increases in departmental expenditures." Although the revised version uses more words, it is clearer and simpler to read.