Clarity is, as it were, the grail, the ne plus ultra, of academic writing, the purpose of which is to communicate thoughts and information to readers accurately and perspicuously in a document that can stand on its own—an autonomous, self-explanatory account of your thought process and conclusions.
Because clarity is an all-encompassing idea—the fundamental question of clarity is, “Are you getting your meaning across?”—it can be difficult to define, or at least to pare down to a set of clearly bounded parameters.
At the sentence level, though, it’s fair to say that clarity requires constant vigilance against (and revision of) imprecision and ambiguity in syntax and diction.
"Imprecision" refers to language that, while in some sense correct, is insufficiently specific:
The regime would later issue a new economic policy that affected manufacturers’ ability to market their goods internationally.
There might be nothing untrue in this sentence, but it leaves us with numerous questions: Later when? What kind of economic policy? Affected how? Which manufacturers? Any particular types of goods? Where is “internationally”?
Choosing more specific language will increase precision and therefore clarity:
In 1997, the regime would enact a new tariff policy that severely curtailed domestic automobile manufacturers’ ability to market their consumer and commercial vehicles in South Asia.
Keep in mind, though, that less specific language can be appropriately precise when making broader claims or observations.
As a rule, the specificity of your language should support the argument being made at any given moment. When your language is as specific as your argument requires, you have achieved precision.
Ambiguity is a many-headed beast. It rears its ugly head(s) any time a reader is unable to determine with reasonable certainty the meaning of your text.
Ambiguity is situational, arising from the interaction between the reader’s background knowledge and the complex lattice of meaning that your sentences (and title, and headings, and structure) have created prior to the moment of ambiguity.
Nevertheless, there are a handful of “usual suspects” that reliably produce sentence-level ambiguity:
- Passive voice
- Misplaced modifiers
- Pronoun antecedents
- Demonstrative pronouns
- Other ambiguities
Passive voice and misplaced modifiers have dedicated pages, linked above and in the sidebar; the remaining issues are discussed in the sections that follow.
Be careful when using pronouns in discussions that include multiple entities (people, organizations, objects, etc.): watch out for situations in which the antecedent (the noun that the pronoun replaces) might be absent or unclear:
- Arcimboldo and Snort disagree with Galtz, Pearsheimer, and Wervis insofar as they argue that . . . . (Which authors are “they”?)
- Hamilton eventually dueled with Burr, and he was mortally wounded, succumbing to his injuries the next day. (Who was wounded?)
Clarify by reiterating the antecedent or restructuring the sentence:
- Arcimboldo and Snort disagree with Galtz, Pearsheimer, and Wervis insofar as these latter scholars argue that . . . .
- Hamilton eventually dueled with Burr and was mortally wounded, succumbing to his injuries the next day.
This, that, these, and those can function as either demonstrative adjectives or demonstrative pronouns:
- Adjective: Can you please hand me that mustard?
- Pronoun: Can you please hand me that?
Demonstratives often serve as transitions, referring back to material previously introduced. While both forms are grammatically legitimate, demonstrative pronouns often leave us with questions about what’s going on—namely, "this/that/these/those what?":
Diplomatic pressure from Erewhon has compelled the Flatlanders to officially renounce their claim to South Houyhnhnm, but they remain heavily involved in the region, funneling both materiel and humanitarian assistance to Lilliputian separatist groups. This has led the Narnian Republics to withdraw their longstanding military and economic support of Flatland.
Which item does “this” refer to? The renunciation? The involvement? Something else?
As a general rule, it is clearer to use demonstrative adjectives, placing a noun after them to specify precisely what they're pointing to.
Nominalizations are the noun forms of verbs—words that signal the existence of an action as opposed to the performance of an action (the job of verbs).
Because nominalizations are nouns and not verbs, they can be present in a sentence without the agent that is performing the action, thereby obscuring who is doing what. Take, for example, this sentence:
The concern over the bill was that it would allow overseas conglomerates to undersell automobile manufacturers in regional markets.
While this sentence is grammatically correct, we have no idea whose concern it’s telling us about; we just know the concern exists. Who is experiencing this concern might be clear from the context. Or it might not.
We can thus begin clarifying this statement by indicating whose concern we're referring to. If it's the manufacturers—a plausible candidate—we might rewrite the sentence this way:
Automobile manufacturers’ concern over the bill was that it would allow overseas conglomerates to undersell them in regional markets.
This sentence now assigns the concern to an identifiable entity, giving us a more concrete idea of what's going on. The subject and verb, though, remain strikingly uninformative, fundamentally telling us that "concern was," which just doesn't capture our sense that someone was feeling something.
If we turn "concern" into a verb and make the who our subject, we get the clearest version yet:
Automobile manufacturers were concerned that the bill would allow overseas conglomerates to undersell them in regional markets.Nominalizations can also create ambiguity when they participate in noun clusters; see Concision.
“Parataxis” literally means “to place alongside”; it refers to constructions in which information is juxtaposed, leaving out the kinds of indicators we look for to understand the relationship between ideas:
- The engine overheated during the first trial. We modified the casing, replacing it with a circumdiagonal sheet of nanoporous carbon alloy.
- The assembly eventually passed the bill; overseas conglomerates began to undersell automobile manufacturers in regional markets.
Although it is strongly implied in each case that the second statement is a consequence of the first, because this relationship is not explicitly stated, it technically remains ambiguous. Was the casing modified to address the overheating—or for some other reason? Did the bill cause this effect in the automobile market, or did they merely occur at the same time?
Clearly expressing relationships of causality, timing, rationale, etc. when appropriate will prevent your readers from having to guess:
- The engine overheated during the first trial, so we modified the casing, replacing it with a circumdiagonal sheet of nanoporous carbon alloy.
- The assembly eventually passed the bill; as a result, overseas conglomerates began to undersell automobile manufacturers in regional markets.
When it appears in topic sentences, unexplained juxtaposition can be structurally disorienting. Imagine encountering this sentence at the very beginning of a paragraph:
Training should be a monthly requirement so that all staff have an up-to-date knowledge of new regulations.
Is this statement a continuation of the previous idea? Something new? Subordinating it to the larger discussion—offering context via a transition—will help readers understand the purpose of this emerging point:
To reduce contract processing times even further, training should be a monthly requirement so that all staff have an up-to-date knowledge of new regulations.
While attending to these considerations can reliably increase the clarity of your writing, this list is not comprehensive; ultimately, there is no substitute for being alert to the particularities—the unique potential for ambiguity—of any given construction or moment in your text. Ask yourself, “Is there any other way someone could read this?” and then work to ensure that only your intended meaning remains.
More Tips for Achieving Clarity
- Handout (printable): "Sentence Clarity," Purdue OWL
- Handout (printable): "Revising for Clarity and Concision," Purdue OWL
- Article: "The Science of Scientific Writing," George Gopen and Judith Swan, American Scientist (contains many helpful clarity tips applicable to all disciplines)
- Webpage (printable): "Clarity in Writing," Writing for the United Nations
- Webpage with short video and exercises: "Clarity and Simple Language," University of British Columbia
- Book: Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace, 8th ed., Joseph M. Williams, New York: Pearson Longman
The following index makes searching for a specific topic easier and links to the appropriate place in the sequenced material. We think we have most of them, but please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if we are missing something!