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clear communication: simplify your sentences

A similar topic is discussed in French in the article COMMUNICATION CLAIRE : CLARIFIEZ VOS PHRASES.)

Often without realizing it, we write long and complicated sentences, strung together with commas and other punctuation marks. If you really want to write for your reader, you need to write shorter and simpler sentences.

Here are a few pointers on how to write clear and effective sentences:

Keep your sentences fairly short

A target to aim for: 15 to 20 words. That’s usually long enough to get your point across without losing your reader. Sentences of more than 25 words are often difficult to understand on first reading. And even the most seasoned reader will struggle to make sense of sentences longer than 30 words.

Of course, 15-to-20 isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. A document of only 17-word sentences will seem monotonous. And too many short sentences will sound choppy. Varying your sentence length will help keep your writing lively and your reader interested.

Tackle one main idea per sentence

This is an easy way to ensure that your sentences stay short and to reduce the risk of mistakes in your mechanics.

Divide long sentences

This 55-word sentence below 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.

You could rewrite it this way:

  • 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.

Cut out unnecessary words to shorten sentences

Instead of this :

  • 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.

Write this:

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

Put things in subject-verb-object order

Standard sentence order is the easiest to understand.

Instead of this:

  • The following are the requirements that employees must meet. (object-subject-verb)

Write this:

  • Employees must meet the following requirements. (subject-verb-object)

Keep the verb close to its subject and object

It is distracting and confusing when non-essential information separates the verb from its subject or its object.

Instead of this:

  • The director, after a lengthy consultation process with the commissioner, decided to make some recommendations. (The verb, decided, is separated from the subject, director.)

Or this:

  • The director decided, after a lengthy consultation process with the commissioner, to make some recommendations. (The verb, decided, is separated from the object, to make some recommendations.)

Write this:

  • After a lengthy consultation process with the commissioner, the director decided to make some recommendations.

Use linking words and punctuation

Coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) and certain punctuation marks (comma, semicolon, colon) can help connect ideas in two parts of a sentence.

  • He missed the concert: tickets sold out before he got to the box office.
  • I would have checked the file, but the cabinet was locked.
  • Marie attends the meetings and writes the minutes.

Writing short, simple sentences helps you express your ideas more clearly.