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English, French, and Math Support: Plain language: Phrases, synonyms and pronouns

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Plain language: Phrases synonyms and pronouns

Clarity in academic writing is an important goal; writing in plain language helps to achieve clarity. This page describes how to write in plain language, in these areas:

  1. Replace verb-noun phrases and wordy phrases with more precise words;
  2. Choose the best word (synonym) with a thesaurus;
  3. Use pronouns correctly.

1. Replace verb-noun phrases and wordy phrases with more precise words

The English language allows many ways to express the same thing. In academic writing, the goal is to use the plainest language possible. Often, verb-noun phrases and verbs such as “make,” “do,” “give,” and “have” can be replaced, as in the following examples.

Awkward verb-noun phrase Preferred phrase or verb
Write an email to someone Email someone
Make an impact on something Impact something
Do exercise Exercise
Make an enquiry Enquire
Carry out an examination of Examine
Make friends with someone on a social networking site Friend someone ("Friend" is a contemporary example of a noun that can now be a verb.)
Is in possession of Has

The following table shows a few examples of common errors of wordy phrases.

Wordy phrase Preferred phrase
Owning to the fact that Because
In close proximity Near
Summarize briefly Summarize (a summary is brief)
In the absence of Without

The following table shows how awkward sentences may be improved by more precise words.

Awkward sentence Preferred sentence
This historian makes an argument that giving financial relief to the poor has historically not provided them with help. The historian argues that relieving the poor financially has historically not helped them.
The claim that he makes does not have a match with the observations that the people have seen. His claim does not match what the people have observed.
His memory of the event has an influence on his life because he does not have the ability to form new relationships as a result of it. His memory of the event has influenced his life because he cannot form new relationships as a result of it.
Practice: Replace the awkward bolded sections with more precise words or phrases.
  1. The government did not have the ability to make a suppression of the people who were rebelling against them.
  2. Due to the fact that Sarah’s accusation occurs just at the same time when Canada makes a declaration of war against Germany, it can be said that it is clear that the author is making a connection between character and setting.
  3. The products that we purchase when we are shopping have an importance in terms of the impact that they make on the local economy in the area that they are purchased in.

2. Choose the best word (synonym) with a thesaurus

Teachers encourage a wide vocabulary. However, sometimes students choose words from a thesaurus that sound sophisticated, without understanding the connotations (feelings) associated with the words. Look at the following example.

Awkward paragraph with sophisticated words Preferred paragraph
The utmost suitable metropolis in Canada is Vancouver, bestowing to a 2015 study. This examination took countless principles into account, counting public conveyance, private safety, community healthiness, municipal tutoring, and civic amenities available to populations. Montreal ordered fourth. The most livable city in Canada is Vancouver, according to a 2015 study. This research took several criteria into account, including public transportation, personal safety, public healthcare, public education, and public services available to citizens. Montreal ranked fourth.

The sentences on the left, above, are almost incomprehensible because they contain words chosen randomly from a thesaurus. Using a thesaurus is an effective strategy if done well; however, many students choose words that they believe sound sophisticated, but actually sound strange or just plain wrong to English speakers.

Avoid this type of error by choosing familiar words, or checking the meaning of replacement words and their connotations. It is generally better to be repetitive and clear than it is to use confusing vocabulary.

Practice: Edit the bolded word to make the paragraph varied, yet clear.
  1. Rice is an important food in many developing countries. It is a food that is cheap, easily grown and easily prepared. Furthermore, rice can be integrated as a neutral base into many other foods, which has led to the development of more complex foods such as sushi, curry, cabbage rolls, and risotto.
    Thesaurus: food = ailment, grub, fare, dish, staple, nutriment, foodstuffs, diet, cuisine
  2. Several chain motifs in the story symbolize the enduring nature of friendship. The rust-free chains on the ship, the chain of the necklace that Simon finds in the treasure chest, and the broken chain on the handcuffs reinforce the concept that friendship forges a strong connection between people. The friendship between Simon and Jack is no exception.
    Thesaurus: chain = cable, series, hawser, restraint, shackle, sequence, manacle, link
    friendship = bond, amity, acquaintance, alliance, rapport, comradery

3. Use pronouns clearly

Pronouns must agree with the person, number and gender of the preceding noun they refer to, as shown in the following table.

Sentence example Person Number Gender
Jessica loved her new iPhone. Third Singular Feminine
The books had their pages torn out. Third Plural Neutral
Don't leave your phone unattended. Second Singular Unknown
My books and my laptop are on the desk. First Singualr Unknown
Our jackets are on the floor. First Plural Unknown

Pronouns must clearly indicate which preceding noun they refer to (the pronoun antecedent must be obvious), as shown in the following table.

Unclear pronoun use Corrected sentence
Harper and Bush agreed that his approach to climate change was the best. Harper and Bush agreed that Harper's approach to climate change was the best.
Harper and Bush agreed that the former's approach to climate change was the best.

The unclear sentence on the left, above, doesn’t make clear whose approach to climate change is the best. Is it Harper’s or Bush’s? Sometimes, it is best to avoid the pronoun, to ensure clarity.

Solutions can include:

  • Replace the pronoun with a noun.
  • Restructure the sentence.
  • Replace the pronoun with words like “former” and “latter.”


Practice: Edit the following sentences to clarify unclear pronouns.
  1. Jenkins develops the character in a way that reflects her passion for animal rights.
  2. Tom and Huck are dressed in similar clothes; they are grubby, smelly and threadbare.
  3. Tajikistani politicians are pushing for stronger action against Uzbekistan because they want to take advantage of the weak government to push their own agenda.
  4. Although both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have signed peace treaties, the one is more likely than the other one to actually militarize.

Summary Checklist

  • Read your work aloud. This will help you to recognize some, but not all, awkward or unclear phrases. If you do not recognize a word you have inserted, or you don’t know how to pronounce it, replace it with a word you are familiar with.
  • Choose a paragraph and identify the subject and verb of each sentence. Identify pronouns, and check that the pronoun reference is clear.

Plain language: Phrases, synonyms and pronouns -- Exercises

Try to increase the clarity of the following sentences by identifying and correcting unclear parts of the following exercises. Re-write each sentence using one or more of the strategies described in this tip sheet. There are several correct replies for each sentence. Check your answers with staff in the Writing Centre.

  1. Although the snowflakes form a cover over the footprints, they will still be there when the snow melts in the spring. This is a reflection of the fact that time cannot heal all wounds.
  2. The government did not have the ability to make a suppression of the people who were rebelling against them. Although they fought bitterly against them, they fought with “the passion of the oppressed” and eventually won the fight for their freedom.
  3. Ben showed hesitation when he gave testimony against his attacker; this was the first demonstration of his power over him. At the same time, the fact that Ben testified shows that the attacker’s attack did not attack Ben’s courage, even it if it attacked his sense of calm.
  4. The book comes to an end by giving the readers a timeline with a summary of the most important English battles from the period 1066 to 1450. It is detailed and annotated, but still does not provide sufficient detail about the rulers’ roles in the battles, or how they were influenced by them.

Plain language: Phrases, synonums and pronouns -- Printable format

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