Clear Concise Sentences
A sentence consists of an arrangement of words to transmit a thought. The words you select, their clarity, conciseness, and how you arrange them directly affects whether your audience will understand your message. A clear and logical sentence is one that has both coherence and unity. A concise sentence expresses an idea with as few words as possible. Your written (and spoken) communication must be clear, direct, and understandable. The following guidelines will help you communicate clearly.
a. Choose effective words and phrases. The words and phrases you choose directly affect the clarity and conciseness of each sentence. As you select the words and phrases for each sentence ask yourself, “Do these words and phrases effectively say what I want? Would my reader understand them?” If you can’t answer yes, then you need to re-examine what you are trying to say.
(1) Use concrete words. Concrete words are easy to understand because they relate to the five senses. For example, the term M16A2 is meaningful to a military audience because it represents an object that you can see, feel, and use. Abstract words, on the other hand, are hard to understand because they fail to recall experiences of the five senses. Some language experts describe words in terms of an abstraction ladder.
(a) The lower rungs of the ladder represent objects the reader can readily identify. They are concrete words.
(b) As you go up the ladder, each word becomes more abstract than the one below. At the same time, the meaning becomes vague and open to debate.
(2) Use common words. You will find that it is harder to write “gobbledygook” than simple language because you must translate common words into uncommon, impressive sounding words. Many writers use “gobbledygook” because they believe it adds dignity to their writing.
Gobbledygook is a catchword meaning that the writer uses (a) 100 words to say what could be said in 20; (b) words that are unfamiliar to the reader, (c) words of three or four syllables when simpler words convey the same idea; (d) military jargon or overworked phrases; (e) long and involved sentences; (f) foreign expressions; and (g) jumbled, unrelated, illogical ideas.
Gobbledygook: Illumination is required to be extinguished upon vacating these premises.
Improved: Turn out the lights when you leave.
Gobbledygook: Hegemony is a basic characteristic of a good officer.
Improved: Leadership is a basic characteristic of a good officer.
Gobbledygook: An Army career offers you the opportunity to peregrinate in foreign countries.
Improved: An Army career offers you the opportunity to travel in foreign countries.
(3) Use familiar words. Some words cover such a broad field that the reader is unable to decide what you mean. Avoid vague, ambiguous words or ideas that obscure your topic. Consider the following example where unrelated and distant words and ideas hide the real meaning.
Wordy: These chapters on tests and measurements are presented with the hope they will enable you to make full utilization of correct procedures and techniques. It is believed that you will find them of practical value in the event that you are called upon to administer tests or to interpret in the field the scores resulting from tests.
The following rewrite of these two sentences clarifies the message by eliminating the unrelated and distant words and ideas.
Improved: In these chapters, we will teach you how to give tests and interpret test scores. You improve the clarity by finding the word that precisely expresses your thought. For example, consider the distinction between rebellion and revolution. The two words are similar but different. Rebellion describes resistance to or defiance of any authority, control, or tradition which may or may not result in change. Revolution, on the other hand, describes a forcible overthrow of a government or a complete, usually radical change in something that occurs relatively quickly. Another comparison can be made between the words practicable and practical. Practicable applies only to that which is capable of being put into practice. Practical, as opposed to theoretical, means sensible when applied to persons, efficient when applied to things. The building of a pontoon bridge across a body of water might be practicable (it could be done), but it would not be practical (sensible) unless it was the most efficient method of connecting the two shores.
(4) Avoid wordiness. Use words that have to mean to your audience. Often our writing is cluttered with words that add nothing. We use words that could be omitted; we use phrases when a word would do. Learn to recognize this “excess baggage” and delete it from your writing. Following are three wordy sentences with examples showing how you can improve them.
Wordy: I contemplate inaugurating a reorganization of my company in the near future.
Improved: I intend to reorganize my company soon.
Wordy: In every instance wherein a change is necessary for a one-page pamphlet, the change will be accomplished by a republication of the pamphlet.
Improved: When changes are necessary for one- or two-page pamphlets we will republish the pamphlets.
Wordy: Needless to say, the discarded desk will be repaired in each instance. Improved: We will repair each discarded desk.
(5) Avoid stilted words and phrases. Some words or phrases are used so exclusively in writing that they have an artificial, stilted flavor; while you may need to use such words occasionally, try to find plain common terms instead. Compare the following examples: Stilted Clear Accordingly …, consequently … And so … Hence …, thus … Therefore … Moreover … Now …, next … That is to say … That is, …
(6) Avoid overworked words and phrases. Some words and phrases have become trite and tiresome. Ordinary and simple words attract by their simplicity and naturalness. Look for fresh but common words that clearly communicate. Notice the difference between the following expressions. Trite Fresh/Common Makes provision for … Does … The fullest possible extent … The most … For the reason that … Since … Inasmuch as … Since … In the event that … If … On the basis of … By …
(7) Don’t bury your verbs. Verbs are relation-showing words. They show action (we go), state (he became), feeling (she likes), or existence (you are). A buried verb is one that has been hidden in other words. Buried verbs decrease the forcefulness of your writing while increasing the potential for misunderstanding. If you free these verbs, they will add force to your writing. We bury verbs by adding the endings ance, ent, al, ing, ed, tion, sion, and age.
Consider the following example: The need for investigation of the sounds became apparent to them. In this example the buried verbs are investigate in investigation and appear in apparent. If we free the buried verbs, we might write the sentence as follows: The need to investigate the sounds appeared to them. Since the sentence is still awkward, we might say:
Better: They saw that they needed to investigate the sounds.
Best: They saw that they should investigate the sounds.
b. Make sentences clear, concise, and logical. Limit each sentence to a single thought. A sentence that includes several unrelated ideas connected by words like “and” and “so” is hard to understand.
Vague: The following individuals failed to make a qualifying score with the M16 rifle, so this course will be repeated during the last half of the current training cycle, and their schedules should be changed to include this instruction. Clear: The following people failed to qualify with the M16 rifle. They will repeat this course during the last half of the training cycle. Arrange your words and phrases to convey your exact meaning. You do not need to be a grammarian to recognize illogical sentence structure. Use common sense. When you have written a statement, ask yourself, “Is the meaning of the sentence clear when I read it rapidly?” If you can’t answer “Yes,” the sentence needs rewriting.
(1) Avoid misused modifiers. Modifiers, whether they are words or phrases, should be near the words they modify. If you use modifiers carelessly, you will confuse your reader. There are three general types of misused modifiers: dangling modifiers, misplaced modifiers, and ambiguous modifiers. Any of the three will lead to confusion, as shown in the following examples.
(a) Dangling modifier: Dangling: Driving quickly through the cane fields, the two positions were seized by the 21st Infantry. (Driving cannot logically modify positions.) Should be: Driving quickly through the cane fields, the 21st Infantry seized the two positions.
(b) Misplaced modifier: Misplaced: Every soldier cannot become a general. (Modifies can become.)
Clear: Not every soldier can become a general. (Modifies every.)
Misplaced: Only the tank contained 2 gallons of gas. (Modifies tank.)
Clear: The tank contained only 2 gallons of gas.
(Modifies 2.) (c) Ambiguous modifier: Ambiguous: Inspectors will report any unauthorized use or misuse of equipment. (Unauthorized modifies both use and misuse.)
Should be: Inspectors will report any misuse or unauthorized use of equipment. Ambiguous: All damaged equipment and scrap will be turned in to the property disposal officer on Friday. (Damaged modifies both equipment and scrap.)
Should be: All scrap and damaged equipment will be turned in to the property disposal officer on Friday.
(2) Watch for faulty pronoun references. A pronoun should be placed as near as possible to its antecedent so that no intervening word is mistaken for the antecedent. If necessary repeat the antecedent to prevent misunderstanding. Further, pronouns should agree in number with the nouns to which they refer.
Confusing: The sniper followed the scout into the woods, where he shot him. (Scout would probably be mistaken for the antecedent.)
Should be: The sniper followed the scout into the woods and shot him. Confusing: Although we have three types of divisions, its headquarters are essentially the same. (The word “its” should agree with the antecedent types.)
Should be: Although we have three types of divisions, their headquarters are essentially the same.
(3) Use parallel construction to tie parallel thoughts together. Use the same grammatical structure to express parallel ideas.
Not parallel: The property officer is responsible for issuing supplies, maintenance of records, and must keep a reserve stock.
Should be: The property officer is responsible for issuing supplies, maintaining records, and keeping a reserve stock.
c. Complete your sentences. Some sentences are not understandable because an essential word or phrase is missing.
(1) Don’t omit words in sentences which compare or contrast ideas. Not comparable: The United States Air Force has more planes than any other country.
Should be: The United States Air Force has more planes than the air force of any other country.
(2) Don’t omit parts of compound verbs of more than one tense. Two different verb forms may be required if your sentence uses more than one tense.
Omission: Infantry always has and always will be a deciding factor in battle.
Should be: Infantry always has been and always will be a deciding factor in battle.
(3) Don’t omit necessary prepositions. Some prepositions are commonly used with certain other words to form idiomatic phrases; for example, bring to pass, addicted to, come by, and situated on. In writing, you must respect the relationships of these expressions if you are to avoid awkwardness and misunderstanding. When you have two or more such phrases in a sentence, use the correct preposition with each.
Omission: This headquarters is neither concerned nor interested in the proposed program. Should be: This headquarters is neither concerned with nor interested in the proposed program.
d. Write unified sentences. A sentence needs both coherence and unity to be logical and clear. Unity exists when all parts of the sentence contribute to one clear idea or impression. A unified sentence is like a pane of clear glass; you look through it but are unaware of its existence. When an idea is not clear, the sentence becomes more like a wall than a pane of glass.
(1) Avoid mixed construction in sentences. Mixed construction often comes from using the wrong subject-verb relationship and from repeating an object or a conjunction.
(a) Wrong subject-verb relationship.
Mixed: Driving a car is both simple and will also give you much pleasure.
Should be: Driving a car is simple and pleasurable.
(b) Repeating an object.
Involved: The general said that if we hurried that we would catch up with the headquarters.
Should be: The general said that if we hurried, we would catch up with the headquarters.
(2) Use short sentences. Short sentences are easy to read because our eyes can pick them up with little effort. Such sentences are easy to understand and remember because they form clear thought patterns.
Lengthy: Military training teaches a soldier to stand straight and walk with his head up; this helps in future life because it becomes a habit, and so many people have the bad habit of walking stooped, which leads to poor health and poor appearance.
Short: Military training teaches a soldier to stand straight and walk with his head up. Good posture becomes habitual and leads directly to better health and appearance.
(a) How short should your sentences be? AR 25-50 states “The average length of a sentence should be about 15 words.” You may feel that complex ideas cannot be adequately presented in such sentences. The Reader’s Digest uses sentences which average fewer than 17 words. The New Yorker magazine, which has a reputation for relatively high literary quality, uses sentences that average 18 words.
(b) You should not limit all of your sentences to 15 words or less. If they are all short, your writing will be monotonous and childish. Vary the length of your sentences; otherwise, your reader will become tired of your style. Some sentences may be one word (for example, “Stop!”); others may total 25 or more words. Try to balance your sentences, though, so that the average length is about 15 words.
Monotonous: Back of the school building are barracks. The barracks are long, rambling, three-story buildings. Each building is divided into 12 rooms. Each room will accommodate 15 men.
Variety: The barracks located behind the school building are long, rambling, three-story buildings. These buildings are divided into 12 rooms, each of which will accommodate 15 soldiers.
e. Use the active voice. Strong sentences help sell your ideas. The heart of a strong sentence is an active, precise verb. The opposite is also true–a weak or wordy sentence contains a passive verb.
(1) The topic of active or passive voice in writing seems to create a lot of confusion. The problem is that many writers confuse voice with tense and conclude that passive voice always refers to the past while active voice refers to the present or future. Voice only shows whether the subject is performing the action (active voice) or receiving the action (passive voice). Active and passive voice never refers to tense but to action.
(2) You form the passive voice by using a form of the verb “to be” with the past participle of the main verb. First, the past participle’s endings are -ed or -en. Second, some form of the auxiliary verb “to be (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been) will always precede the past participle.
Passive: It is believed by many soldiers that PVT Jones was driving when the truck was wrecked.
Active: Many soldiers believe that PVT Jones wrecked the truck.
Passive: Our flank was attacked by the enemy.
Active: The enemy attacked our flank.
f. The passive voice is appropriate for specific conditions. Military writers frequently overuse the passive voice in their correspondence. This is not to say that the passive voice is always wrong. There are specific times when the passive voice is more appropriate than the active voice. For example:
(1) When you place the emphasis on the action rather than the actor. All men were inoculated against typhoid by the surgeon.
(2) To describe a condition where the actor is unknown or unimportant. Every year, thousands of people are diagnosed as having cancer.