Some Strategies for Improving Sentence Clarity

Some Strategies for Improving Sentence Clarity


Included here are strategies you can use to write clear sentences.

Go from old to new information.

  • Introduce your readers to the "big picture" first by giving them information they already know. Then they can link what’s familiar to new information you give them. As that new information becomes familiar, it too becomes old information that can link to newer information.

The following is an example of a sentence that uses old information to lead to new information. As a result, it is rather clear and understandable

  • Every semester, after final exams are over, I’m faced with the problem (old information) of what to do with books of lecture notes (new information). They (old) might be useful some day, but they just keep piling up on my bookcase (new). Someday, it (old) will collapse under the weight of information I might never need.

Here is a sentence that is not as clear. It moves from new information to old information:

  • Lately, most movies I’ve seen have been merely second-rate entertainment, but occasionally, there are some with worthwhile themes. The rapid disappearance of the Indian culture (new) is the topic (old) of a recent movie I saw.

(Did you find the second sentence hard to read or understand? If so, it could be because the old information comes late in the sentence after the new information.)

Add clauses at the end of the sentence rather than at the beginning or in the middle.

Once readers have the big picture, you can add information to the end of the sentence where it is both easier to understand and easier to remember.

  • clear (clause at the end):

Industrial spying is increasing rapidly because of the growing use of computers to store and process corporate information.

  • not as clear (clause embedded in the middle):

Industrial spying,because of the growing use of computers to store and process corporate information, is increasing rapidly.

Use the active voice.

Often, the active voice is easier to understand than the passive voice because the active voice explains who is doing the action expressed in the verb. In addition, active voice often results in simpler, shorter sentences. So, use active verbs unless you have good reason to use the passive. (For example, the passive is useful when you don’t want to call attention to the doer, when the doer is obvious or unimportant, or when the preferred format among your readers is passive.

For more on the passive, consult the Writing Lab’s handout on active/passive voice.)

  • clear (active):

The committee decided (an active verb) to postpone the vote.

  • not as clear (passive):

The decision was reached (a passive verb) by the committee to postpone the vote.

Use parallel constructions.

When you have a series of words, phrases, or clauses, put tbem in parallel form (similar grammatical construction) so that the reader can identify the linking relationship more easily and clearly.

  • clear (parallel) The numbers in parentheses ( ) designate a parallel feature in the sentence:

In Florida, where the threat of hurricanes is an annual event, we learned tbat it is important to become aware of the warning signs (1), to know what precautions to take (2), and to decide when to seek (3).

  • not as clear (not parallel):

In Florida, where the threat of hurricanes is an annual event, we learned that it is important to become aware of the warning signs (1). There are precautions to take (2), and deciding when to take shelter is important (3).

In the second sentence, notice how the string of "things to be aware of in Florida" does not create a parallel structure. Also, notice how much more difficult it is for a reader to follow the meaning of the second sentence compared to the first sentence.

Avoid noun strings

Try not to string nouns together one after tbe other because a series of nouns is difficult to understand. One way to revise a string of nouns is to change one noun to a verb.

  • unclear (string of nouns):

This theory calls for growth reduction capabilities.

  • clearer:

This theory calls for the capability of reducing growth.

Avoid noun forms of verbs (nominalizations).

In general, use verbs if possible rather than noun forms called "nominalizations."

  • unclear (use of nominalization):

The implementation of goals was successful.

  • clearer: The goals were implemented successfully.

Avoid negatives.

When possible, use tbe affirmative ratber than the negative or a string of negatives because negatives are harder to understand.

  • unclear (use of negative):

Less attention is paid to commercials that lack human interest stories.

  • clearer (use of positive):

People pay more attention to commercials with human interest stories.

Avoid unclear pronouns

Be sure your pronouns clearly refer to nouns that have already appeared on the page.

  • An example to avoid:One difference between television news reporting and the coverage provided by the news papers is the time factor between the actual happening of an event and the time it takes to be reported. The problem is that this (unclear pronoun) is physically impossible for newspapers.

(What does the pronoun "this" refer to? Does "this" refer to on-the-spot reporting? Or might "this" refer to the fact tbat newspapers cannot be instantly or quickly printed? Or do you have a different interpretation?

Copyright (C)1995 by Purdue University. All rights reserved.
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This document is part of a collection of instructional materials used in the Purdue University Writing Lab. The on-line version is part of OWL (On-line Writing Lab), a project of the Purdue University Writing Lab, funded by the School of Liberal Arts at Purdue.

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Last revised 31 October 1996 by JEB