As promised, Caryn Gootkin finishes her guide to writing in plain language, going into more detail about specific parts of speech.
Last week I listed my general guidelines for writing in plain language. This week I give some specific examples relating to each part of speech. Please read the general guide first as there are cross references between the two. I’ve repeated the parts of speech table here so you don’t have to constantly flip between the two pages.
|part of speech||Job description||examples|
|verb||tells us what the doer is doing or what state they are in||Betty hums tunes.|
|noun||names things, people or places||Betty hums tunes.|
|adjective||describes a noun||Betty hums familiar tunes.|
|adverb||describes a verb, adjective or other adverb||Betty often hums vaguely familiar tunes.|
|pronoun||replaces a noun||She often hums vaguely familiar tunes.|
|preposition||links nouns to other words||She often hums vaguely familiar tunes in her room.|
|conjunction||joins words, clauses or sentences||She often hums vaguely familiar tunes but she never sings the words.|
Nouns and Pronouns
1. Nouns, as the naming words in a sentence, describe who or what (the subject) is doing the action or having the action done to them (the object). In a simple sentence this means:
The dog (subject) ate (verb) the bone (object).
Pronouns, which take the place of nouns to avoid having to repeat them, change form depending on
- their person (first, second or third),
- position in the sentence (subject or object),
- whether they are singular or plural
- whether they are reflecting possession.
|first person||second person||third person|
|subject||I (sing), we (pl)||you (sing & pl)||he/she/it/they (sing), they (pl)|
|object||me (sing), us (pl)||you (sing & pl)||him/her/it/them (sing), them (pl)|
|possessive||my/mine (sing), our(s) (pl)||your(s)s (sing & pl)||his/her(s)/its/their(s) (sing), their(s) (pl)|
So, let’s go back to our example. If we wanted to add another sentence to advance our story, we might write: The dog enjoyed the bone.
But, when you put the two together it sounds awkward and wordy to repeat the words ‘the dog’ and ‘the bone’. This is where pronouns come in. The second time the noun is mentioned we replace it with a pronoun. So our story would now read:
The dog ate the bone. He enjoyed it.
The correct use of pronouns can greatly simplify your writing.
2. Whenever possible, use first and second person pronouns instead of third. Address your readers directly, and in the singular, unless there is a very good reason not to do so. This immediately makes your writing more accessible and relevant to your reader.
Instead of “People should obey road traffic laws”, write “You should obey road traffic laws.”
Also, avoid the use of ‘one’, preferring ‘I’. Instead of ‘one finds that’, write ‘I find that’.
3. Closely related is another of my pet peeves: lawyers commonly refer to themselves in letters as ‘the writer’. While this may be because the particular lawyer writing the letter is referring to himself as opposed to his firm, there are simple ways to do this that don’t create such a distance between you and your reader.
For example, “you told the writer…” should be “you told me…” The reader will know who the “me” refers to. It is obviously the person whose name appears at the bottom of the letter.
Similarly some academic departments require theses or papers to be written in the third person. So, students have to call themselves “the author”. It’s a bit too self-aggrandising for me.
I think it is time we all owned our writing.
4. Writing should always be gender neutral unless the issue of gender is central to the concept you are writing about. Using ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’ as singular third person pronouns gets around a lot of the tricky gender issues. (see the table in 1)
We have all seen general statements such as: “A doctor must always respect his patients.” This is both sexist and, in many cases, wrong.
Three ways to get around this are by rephrasing this as:
“Doctors must always respect their patients.”
“A doctor must always respect their patients.”
“A doctor must always respect a patient.”
5. I could write a book on the use of ‘that’, ‘which’ and ‘who’ as relative pronouns and which is better in different contexts. I won’t bore you with that material here, but if you are interested I suggest you read this Guardian blog.
My interest in this guide is helping you write more clearly. And the incorrect placement of clauses and phrases beginning with relative clauses can greatly distort meaning. This is a rather far-fetched example but I have read similar sentences in many published works.
The book lay on the table which I had read.
To eliminate ambiguity, always make sure that the description introduced by the relative pronoun relates to the correct part of the sentence. In this case, the relevant noun is ‘book’ and not ‘table’ so the sentence should read:
The book which I had read lay on the table.
6. The tense of a verb expresses when the action happened. I am not going to burden you with a lecture on English’s 12 tenses. For our purposes it is enough to know that you should always use the simplest tense possible. This will usually be the simple present (I walk) or simple past (I walked) tense.
7. The more complicated aspects of verbs are their voice and, to a lesser extent, strength.
English has two voices – active and passive. In the active voice the subject of the sentence carries out the verb action; in passive sentences the subject experiences the action.
Active: She kicked the ball.
Passive: The ball was kicked by her.
Active voice is almost always better than passive, unless there is a specific reason why the passive is used.
Passive verbs are sometimes correct and effective, as in these instances:
- the subject is unknown (“A man was killed.”)
- you need to soften a harsh reality rather than accusing someone directly (“The account remains unpaid”).
|There is such a thing as the poetry of a mistake and when you say “Mistakes were made” you deprive an action of its poetry and you sound like a weasel. ― Charles Baxter|
8. Apart from being a less direct (and therefore less simple) way of writing, passive sentences complicate writing further by using ‘hidden verbs’. John Linnegar (insert hyperlink) refers to these as nounisms – nouns turned into verbs. He gives a simple sentence as an example:
Active: We discussed the matter.
Passive: We had a discussion about the matter.
The active verb ‘discuss’, when turned into the passive voice, becomes the noun ‘discussion’.
Nounisms clutter writing even if not used in a passive sentence. The verb ‘to apply’ is a good example. Instead of simply ‘applying for’ things, we often ‘make application for’ them. This adds more words to your sentence and inflates your writing.
9. The example in 8 also shows the benefit of using strong verbs. The verb ‘discuss’ is a strong verb because it needs no help to convey its meaning. When we revert to nounisms, however, the weaker verb needs a noun in order to convey the same meaning. So, we need three words instead of one: ‘had a discussion’ instead of ‘discuss’.
10. Slightly more controversial is my pet peeve, ‘shall’, which I consider vague and largely obsolete. While many feel there is still a legitimate place in our language for ‘shall’, I believe that in each case there is an alternative that is clearer and more suitable. Have a look at the two examples below and see if you agree.
‘You shall pay by the 1st’ could mean:
You will pay by the 1st (which is a simple statement of a future fact)
You must pay by the 1st (which imposes an obligation on you)
The only context in which I accept that there may still be a role for ‘shall’ is in questions of the ‘Shall we dance?’ type.
11. The position of the adverb in the sentence determines which word(s) it tells you about or where the emphasis of the sentence lies. So, it is important to always place your adverbs carefully.
To illustrate, compare the following five sentences:
He only eats meat on Mondays.
He eats only meat on Mondays.
He eats meat only on Mondays.
He eats meat on Mondays only.
Only he eats meat on Mondays.
12. Similarly, we often overuse excess adverbs such as absolutely, actually, completely, really, quite, totally, and very. But if you look closely, you’ll find that they often aren’t necessary and may even be nonsensical.
None of the adverbs in the examples below are necessary and all can be culled to shorten the length of a sentence or paragraph:
You are absolutely right.
He is actually a vegetarian.
She is completely finished.
Green tea is quite nice.
|Speak properly, and in as few words as you can, but always plainly; for the end of speech is not ostentation, but to be understood. – William Penn|
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