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13.05 Sentences

Sentences are the basic building blocks of any written material and must be designed to convey the message effectively. To achieve this objective, keep them relatively short, avoid verbiage, link your ideas logically and use the active voice. The same principles apply to paragraphs.

Keep sentences concise. Limit your sentences to one idea and avoid information overload. A sentence such as the one that follows is difficult to understand on first reading because it contains too much information:

  • The amendment provides for pension benefits to be fully funded as they are earned by employees and for the basic pension accounts to be combined with the portion of the Supplementary Retirement Benefits Account that relates to each plan so that all future benefits, including all indexing payments, can be charged to the appropriate accounts.

The points could be more effectively expressed in two or three sentences:

  • Under the amended policy, employees’ pension benefits will be fully funded as they are earned. Moreover, the basic pension account for each plan will absorb the portion of the Supplementary Retirement Benefits Account that applies to that plan. In this way, all future benefits, including indexing payments, can be charged to the appropriate accounts.

In the sentence

  • First of all, in a general sense, what is interesting is that in addition to the initial objective which was to restart the learning process, it was found that this literacy training would enable individuals, who are totally inhibited, to once again discover at least a minimum of self-confidence.

almost all of the first line is superfluous and there are no fewer than four subordinate clauses. Eliminate the filler material and recast the sentence to highlight the main idea:

  • The literacy training met the initial objective of restarting the learning process. It also helped participants, who were very inhibited, to begin acquiring self-confidence.

Paragraphs, too, should be limited to one point, or to a series of related points if the information is not complicated.

Make your point clearly. Avoid empty introductory phrases and padding that obscure the meaning of a sentence. These include expressions such as "I would like to begin by indicating clearly to you that . . ." and "If this step, which may be necessary in some but not all cases, is deemed appropriate . . . ."

Say what you need to say concisely and clearly. Link ideas within sentences and paragraphs by giving your readers "signposts." Cohesion can be achieved in various ways, including the use of linking words (moreover, however and so on) and references to the topic at hand ("The new policy on . . . ," "This policy," "It").

Use the active voice. While the passive voice is useful in moderation and is common in administrative writing, it tends to be wordy and impersonal. Give preference to the active voice, in which the subject conveys the action and is generally near the beginning of the sentence, making it easier for the reader to understand the message:

not

  • It is requested that recommendations be submitted concerning ways and means whereby costs arising out of the use of the facsimile might conceivably be shared by both directorates.

but

  • Please recommend ways in which the two directorates could share the cost of the fax machine.

Convey your message positively. Where possible, use positive words to make your point. For example, write

  • Enter the information in one file only.

not

  • Enter the information in no more than one file.

Readers may miss or misinterpret short negatives such as no, not, none and never and negative words beginning with in-, non- and un-, particularly if several of them occur in the same paragraph. Such misreadings could have a serious effect on users’ decisions and actions. So if you cannot reword positively, consider highlighting the negative by using boldface or italics.