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