How to increase clarity in your writing

Below are three sentences from the June 22, 2020, issue of The New York Times.  All three sentences have writing problems.  Can you figure out what they are?  (Hint:  All three sentences are grammatically correct.)

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.Sentence 1:  In a survey conducted this month by the Partnership for New York City, a business group, respondents from 60 companies with Manhattan offices predicted that only 10 percent of their employees would return by Aug. 15.

Sentence 2:  More riders have already returned to public transportation during the first phase of reopening than officials at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city’s subway systems and buses, had anticipated.

Sentence 3:  A team of scientists including Sarah H. Olson, an epidemiologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society who directed the research, posted a report of their research, which has not yet been peer reviewed but has been submitted to a scientific journal, on a website for unpublished research, bioRxiv.

First problem:  length.  The number of words in the sentences is 36, 31, and 46, respectively.  The more words in a sentence, usually the harder that sentence is to understand.

Second problem:  clauses.  Sentence 1 has two clauses; sentence 2 has three clauses; and sentence 3 has three clauses.  Sometimes two or three clauses do not make a sentence hard to read.  (For example, “My son, who is three, likes to look for bugs which are dead.”)  But if those clauses are long, or are in long sentences, they can be hard to understand.

Third problem:  subject-verb separation.  In sentence 1, six words separate the subject [respondents] and verb [predicted] in the independent clause.  In sentence 2, thirteen words separate the subject in the dependent clause [officials] from its verb [had anticipated].  In sentence 3, sixteen words separate the subject of the independent clause [team] from its verb [posted].  When subjects and verbs are separated, readers find meaning harder to understand.

Fourth problem:  long words.  Sentence 1 has seven words of three or more syllables.  Sentence 2 has eight.  Sentence 3 has seven.  Long words can be good if they are specific.  But when you place long words in long sentences with multiple clauses whose subjects and verbs are separated by many words, confusion increases and understanding decreases.

Luckily, The New York Times attracts well educated readers.  They understand long words and can hold many thoughts in their minds as they read multiple clauses in long sentences.

How about your readers?  Can they understand your writing without having to stop and start over?  If not, try shortening your sentences, separating clauses into separate sentences, keeping subjects and verbs next to each other, and eliminating words of many syllables when a simpler synonym exists.

7 grammar checker apps analyzed

If you are considering using a grammar checking app but are not sure which one would work well for you or your student, you are in luck.  The blog, Daily Writing Tips, has done the analyzing for you.

To test the various apps, Daily Writing Tips submitted a sentence written with four errors:  a missing comma, a misspelled word, a verb problem and a capitalization error.

The apps reviewed, and the number of errors found by each one, include:

  • Google Docs (2)
  • Microsoft Word (4)
  • Grammarly (4)
  • ProWritingAid (4)
  • Hemingway Editor (1)
  • After the Deadline (2)
  • Ginger (3)

The review of the apps recommends certain apps for certain kinds of writing.  If you are a teacher or are looking for an app for a student, Grammarly has the added benefit of explaining in detail why errors are wrong.

For detailed information, go to


Do you read like an editor?

I do, and I wish sometimes I could turn off my editing instinct.

For instance, last week I  reread Pride and Prejudice.  Everything was fine until I reached chapter 10.  There, the heroine, Elizabeth, is sparring verbally with Mr. Darcy, a stranger to whom she has taken a dislike, when the author reveals that “Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her.”

Now, had I been Jane Austen’s editor, I would have told her to leave out this line and all future lines alluding to Mr. Darcy’s falling in love with Elizabeth Bennett.  Instead, let us, the readers, discover that Darcy is in love with Elizabeth the same way Elizabeth does, with his abrupt proposal of marriage.  To Elizabeth, this proposal comes out of nowhere, but not to us.  Since we, the readers, are identifying with Elizabeth as we read, let us feel the same profound shock she does at this startling announcement.

Another book I edit as I read is War and Peace.  Near its end, two of the main characters, Pierre and Natasha, meet up again after years separated by the Napoleonic Wars.  That is where the book should end (spoiler alert) with them falling in love.  Tolstoy should not have included the anticlimatical scene which occurs several years past that time.

Even Shakespeare doesn’t get a pass with me.  Every time I reread  Romeo and Juliet, I find Mercutio more fascinating than Romeo.  But what does Shakespeare do?  He kills off Mercutio in Act III.  Ugg!  What Shakespeare should have done was to recognize that he had created a mesmerizing minor character and made him the major character.  He should have rewritten the play to have the man-of-the-world, Mercutio, fall for innocent Juliet.  What a contrast!

But alas, Austen, Tolstoy and Shakespeare didn’t consult with me.



Are print dictionaries still important?

When I graduated from high school, one gift I received was the American Heritage College Dictionary.  I probably used that book more than any other, judging by its dog-eared pages and split spine.  I only disposed of it when I found that some newer words weren’t in it.  I replaced it with a newer edition.

But few of my students have a college level dictionary in their homes.  Some of the younger ones have a children’s dictionary, but once kids reach middle school, they rely on a cell phone to find the meaning of words—if they bother to look at all.

Is a cell phone dictionary good enough?  What if the power goes out?  What if the phone goes dead?

The real problem I see among kids relying on online dictionaries is that students rely on the first meaning of a word whether it is correct or irrelevant to the context in which they want to use it.  Kids seem to think that all synonyms are equal.  So instead of saying “He said,” they write, “He communicated” or he “interjected.”

Students are used to searching for and accepting the quick answer on their cell phones.  Smart phones are not instruments meant for thoughtful searches or for research.  They can be used for that, of course, but by their nature, they encourage shortcuts, like texting BBF or OMG.

English is a rich language with hundreds of thousands of words, some spanking new like the spelling of “ok” and some archaic like “anon.”  The nuances of our language are as unlikely to be discovered on a cell phone dictionary as are the subtleties of spices to be found in a single cookbook.

Yet, from what I see tutoring students from kindergarten through high school, print dictionaries are not being used.  They are not yet dinosaurs, but except for people who make their living as wordsmiths or English teachers, they are increasingly collecting dust at Goodwill.

There’s no sense lamenting the passing of print dictionaries any more than the passing of cursive.  Survival of the fittest.

George Orwell’s six rules of writing

George Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, published an essay in 1946 called “Politics and the English Language.”  In it he offers six rules for better writing.  I reproduce them here in Orwell’s own words.

1.  Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2.  Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3.  If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4.  Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5.  Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6.  Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.