by Lesley-Anne Longo
Published at 2023-08-23
There’s never a bad time to refresh your writing skills, and now is as good a time as ever (especially if you’re finding yourself with some extra time on your hands)! Here are some common writing habits to unlearn or avoid if you want your writing to be as clear as possible for your readers.
Attempting to cram too many facts into one sentence results in what we call “sardine sentences” (think sardines packed tightly in a can). This habit can be hard to avoid, especially in academic writing. If your sentence is 30 words or more, try dividing it into two separate sentences to give your information some room to breathe. This will also make it much easier for readers to absorb and understand what you are trying to say.
An unclear antecedent is a sentence in which the identity of a pronoun (he, she, it, etc.) is unclear. Here’s an example: “The suitcase was on the bus, but now it’s gone.” The “it” could technically refer to either the suitcase or the bus—it’s up to you to make it clear to your readers who or what your pronoun is referring to. An easy way to correct the above sentence would be to rephrase: “The suitcase was on the bus, but now the bus is gone.”
Confusion often results when adjectives or adverbs get separated from whatever it is they modify; this is called a “wandering modifier.” To better illustrate this problem, here’s an example: “The 7-11 announced it would no longer sell slushies in April.” So, what does the sentence mean? Will the 7-11 stop selling slushies altogether, or will they just not sell them in April? Or did they just make the announcement itself in April?
After re-reading the sentence, you can probably guess what the writer meant to say, but try to avoid putting your readers through the same kind of brainteasers. Just grab the modifier (in this case, “in April”) and move it right back to where it belongs—next to the thing it’s modifying (in this example, it is modifying “announced”). So, the corrected sentence would read: “The 7-11 announced in April it would no longer sell slushies.”
Also known as parallel construction, parallelism is the principle that if a sentence’s elements are parallel in meaning, they should also be parallel in construction. A simple and obvious example is: “He liked hunting, fishing, and to ski.” There are three things “he” liked: two are gerunds (“-ing” words), but the last one is an infinitive. To make the sentence parallel, simply make that infinitive a gerund as well: “He liked hunting, fishing, and skiing.”
Faulty parallelism can also appear in lists, as below:
1. Define our purpose
2. Who is our audience?
3. Our methodology
4. What did we find?
5. Draw conclusions
6. Our recommendations
You can see this list is not parallel—some items are phrased as questions, some are verb statements. To correct this list, ensure every item is phrased the same way: State purpose, define audience, determine methodology, examine findings, derive conclusions, present recommendations.
Nominalization occurs when a writer uses a weak noun (or equivalent) when a stronger verb or adjective replacement would improve the sentence. For example, “Give your book a proofread” can become “Proofread your book.” Similarly, “She shows signs of callousness” becomes “She is callous.”
There are a few ways that subject-verb agreement can get confusing. You probably already know that a singular subject takes a singular verb, whereas a plural subject takes a plural verb. But this can get tricky when the subject and verb aren’t right beside each other. For example, phrases that use “of” can often confuse writers. Which sentence below is correct?
A bouquet of red roses adds colour to a room.
A bouquet of red roses add colour to a room.
The subject will come before the use of “of,” so in this case, we can identify the subject as the bouquet (singular) not the roses (plural). Therefore, the first sentence is correct. One way you can simplify sentences that have the subject and verb separated is to (in your mind) remove the words in between. So, for the example above, you could read it as “A bouquet…adds colour to a room.”
Another way subjects and verbs can trip you up is if the sentence includes the use of “or,” “either/or,” or “neither/nor.” In each of these cases, the subject takes a singular verb. So, you would say “My grandpa or my grandma is arriving today,” or “Neither Julie nor Sarah is available.”
However, you must also remember that the verb in an “or,” “neither/nor,” or “either/or” sentence agrees with the pronoun closest to it. This can certainly confuse things, as in “Neither the bowls nor the platter goes in that cupboard.” Can this lead to strange sentences? Absolutely. For example, “Neither she, my friends, nor I am going to the movies.” In cases like this, it’s best to reword/rewrite the sentence to make it less awkward. The sentence above could become “Neither she, I, nor my friends are going to the movies.”
Keep these tips in mind, and your writing will be concise, clear, and easily understood by anyone who reads it.
Still having trouble with any of the above issues? We can help! Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.