Sentence-Style Revision


The following chapter was originally part of Power Tools for Technical Writing, published by Harcourt, but taken out because of length considerations.

Problems involving sentence-style cause writing to be unclear, wordy, unemphatic, and difficult to read. But sentences with these kinds of style problems are not necessarily grammatically incorrect—nor do they violate any of the commonly accepted standards of usage. Yes, perfectly wretched, unreadable writing can be perfectly error-free!

Federal, state, and local government—as well as academicians and lawyers in general—have long been the primary resource for wordy, pompous, and just plain bad writing. However, with the Plain English Movement, William Clinton's 1998 Presidential Memorandum on Plain Language, and similar events in state and local governments— government writing is becoming less and less an easy target. This chapter reviews some of the most common sentence-style problems, showing how to recognize them and how to fix them. Surely many others exist —we've just not trapped and labeled them yet. But in the wilds of bad writing, being able to recognize and revise sentence-style problems covered in this chapter will take you a long way—and enable you to recognize other types of problems as well.

Bad Passive Voice

Passive voice is a useful tool in our language that can easily be misused. Passive voice constructions are useful when the subject is obvious or when you want to emphasize the object. For example:

Active voice The computer displays the image on the screen.
Passive voice The image is displayed on the screen by the computer.
(true subject indicated)
Passive voice The image is displayed on the screen.
(true subject hidden)

Notice how the passive voice moves the receiver of the action ("screen") up to the beginning of the sentence. Notice in the second passive-voice construction that the subject is hidden—a favorite trick of bureaucratic writing. Here are some additional examples of bad passive-voice constructions followed by revisions (which clean up some other wordiness problems as well):

Bad passive The production of CFCs, carbon tetrachloride, and methyl chloride is to be phased out by 2000.
Active voice The Clean Air Act requires industry to phase out the production of CFCs, carbon tetrachloride, and methyl chloride by 2000.

Bad passive It is advisable to submit a stamped, self-addressed postcard with the application, specifically listing each item in the mailing, that is, the written application, the drawing, the fee, and the specimens (if appropriate).
Active voice Submit a stamped, self-addressed postcard with the application. In the application, list the written application, the drawing, the fee, and the specimens (if appropriate).

Bad passive Used oil recycling activities are not required to be reported to the TNRCC, but used oil must be stored in containers that are in good condition and labeled "used oil."
Active voice You are not required to register or report used oil recycling activities to the TNRCC, but you must store used oil in containers that are in good condition and labeled "used oil."

Bad passive Since automobiles are the main culprit in ozone formation, driving on Ozone Action Days should try to be limited.
Active voice Since automobiles are the main culprit in ozone formation, you should limit your driving on Ozone Action Days.

Bad passive A steady decline in ozone levels over the past 20 years due to factors such as the production of reformulated gasoline and better automobile emission controls in major metropolitan areas of Texas has been experienced.
Active voice Major metropolitan areas of Texas have experienced a steady decline in ozone levels over the past 20 years because of reformulated gasoline and better automobile emission controls.

Difficult Noun Stacks

Another sentence-style problem common in technical writing is the noun stack. A noun stack is a bunch of nouns jammed together in a phrase, for example:

Bad noun stack Macro virus population diversity has gone from 1 to over 800 in the last two years.
Revision The diversity of macro viruses has gone from 1 to over 800 in the last two years.

In the problem version above, "macro virus population diversity" is the noun stack. To "unstack" a noun stack, take some of those jammed-together nouns, and put them into prepositional phrases, verbal phrases, or adjective clauses. The results may be longer than the original but much more understandable. Here are some additional examples of difficult noun stacks:

Bad noun stack Part of the 1990 Clean Air Amendments includes gas-station vapor-recovery requirements and small-stationary-source hydrocarbon-emission reduction.
Revision Part of the 1990 Clean Air Amendments includes requirements to install vapor recovery at gas stations and to reduce hydrocarbon emissions from small stationary sources.

Bad noun stack In 1997, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced new national ambient ground-level ozone air-quality standards.
Revision In 1997, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced new national air-quality standards for ground-level ozone.

Bad noun stack Near real-time 10-micron or less particulate-matter measurements are taken at local atmospheric conditions and are not corrected for temperature or pressure.
Revision Near real-time measurements of particulate matter 10 microns or less in size are taken at local atmospheric conditions and are not corrected for temperature or pressure.

Bad noun stack Austin's Hornsby Bend Beneficial Reuse Program has become a nationally recognized, EPA award-winning sludge-recycling facility.
Revision Austin's Hornsby Bend Beneficial Reuse Program has become nationally recognized for its sludge-recycling facility, which has won an EPA award.

Bad noun stack Regional ozone emission inventory development is complicated by the fact that ozone is not a direct, human-activity-based emission, but instead an "ozone precursor" reaction by-product. (Three nouns stacks in one sentence!)
Revision The development of a regional emission inventory for ozone is complicated by the fact that ozone is not a direct emission from human activities, but is instead a by-product of the reactions of "ozone precursors."

Weak Nominalizations—Weak Be Verbs

One of the chief contributers to dull, wordy, passive writing is the weak be verbs. It creates "weak nominalizations"—that is, a style where nouns are used more often than verbs. Readers "get it" much faster when you use active verbs and take the load off the nouns. You can often spot weak-be verbs by looking for be-verbs followed by prepositions ("is through," "was by," "are from") and by looking for "is when," "is where," "is because" constructions.

Weak be verb The control of nitrogen-oxide emissions from automobiles is by catalytic converters.
Revision Catalytic converters control nitrogen-oxide emissions from automobiles.

Weak be verb The measurement of acidity is by using a pH scale, with the number 7 being neutral.
Revision A pH scale is used to measure acidity, with the number 7 being neutral.

Weak be verb The more than 50-percent reduction of sulfur-dioxide emissions from power plants will be through a two-phase, market-based system.
Revision A two-phase, market-based system will reduce sulfur-dioxide emissions from power plants by more than half.

Weak be verb The effects of high concentrations of ozone can be shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, headaches, nausea, eye and throat irritation, and lung damage.
Revision High concentrations of ozone can cause shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, headaches, nausea, eye and throat irritation, and lung damage.

Weak be verb The emission of ozone is not directly into the air. Its formation is through chemical reactions between natural and man-made emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight.
Revision Ozone is not emitted directly into the air. Instead, it is formed by chemical reactions between natural and man-made emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight.

Weak be verb The reason major metropolitan areas of Texas have experienced a steady decline in ozone levels over the past 20 years is because of the production of reformulated gasoline and better automobile emission controls.
Revision Because of increased use of reformulated gasoline and better automobile emission controls, major metropolitan areas of Texas have experienced a steady decline in ozone levels over the past 20 years.

Weak be verb Ozone pollution is when there is an increase in the concentration of ozone in the ambient air—the natural air that surrounds us.
Revision An increase in the concentration of ozone in the ambient air—the natural air that surrounds us—causes ozone pollution.

Wordy Expletives

If you were around in the Watergate era, you recall the phrase "expletives deleted." That's not what we are talking about here. Expletives here mean any variation of there is or it is. Sometimes these expressions are useful for emphasis, but more often they create wordiness. It's easy to revise them: just yank the expletive and other related words like "that." Here are some examples:

Unnecessary expletive Acid rain usually forms high in the clouds where there are sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that can react with water, oxygen, and oxidants.
Revision Acid rain usually forms high in the clouds where sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides react with water, oxygen, and oxidants.

Unnecessary expletive There are "acidic" and "basic" extremes that describe chemicals, just like there are hot and cold extremes that describe temperature.
Revision Acidic and basic are two extremes that describe chemicals, just like hot and cold are two extremes that describe temperature.

Unnecessary expletive To assist in devising an effective control program to reduce ozone levels, there are two basic questions that need to be answered: what are the sources of the ozone, and what are the most cost-effective controls for these sources?
Revision To assist in devising an effective control program to reduce ozone levels, two basic questions need to be answered: what are the sources of the ozone, and what are the most cost-effective controls for these sources?

Unnecessary expletive To determine whether there is a conflict between two trademarks, the U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office determines whether there would be likelihood of confusion, that is, whether there would be a likelihood that relevant consumers would associate the goods or services of one party with those of the other party as a result of the use of the marks at issue by both parties.
Revision As for potential conflicts between trademarks, the U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office determines whether confusion might occur, that is, whether relevant consumers might associate one party's goods or services with those of another because both parties use the trademark.

Unnecessary expletive There are many local water treatment operators that are trying to discourage the discharge of used antifreeze to publicly owned treatment works because it is the recycling of used antifreeze that is becoming more wide spread.
Revision Many local water treatment operators are trying to discourage the discharge of used antifreeze to publicly owned treatment works because recycling used antifreeze is becoming more wide spread.

Redundant Phrasing

Passive-voice constructions and unnecessary expletives can certainly lead to wordy writing. But there is another category of wordiness that involves redundant phrasing—perhaps, wordy "set phrases" would be a better name. For example, "at that point in time" can ordinarily be wiped out in favor of "then." Actually, there are several categories of such redundancy:

Categories of Redundancy
Category Wordy version Simpler version
Set phrases
subsequent to after
in the event that is
in my own personal opinion I believe…
due to the fact that because
it would be advisable to you should
in close proximity to near
in view of the fact that because
at that point in time then
has the ability to can
with reference to the fact that concerning
a large number of many
within the realm of possibility possible
in some cases sometimes
Redundant adverbs and verbs completely finish, tentatively suggest, connected together, prove conclusively
Redundant adverbs and adjectives totally unique, completely finished, thoroughly complete, bothersomely annoying, productively useful
Redundant adjectives Is it a complete and total failure? Did the candidate win a slender, narrow margin?
Redundant adverbs Did our project completely and totally fail? Are you carefully and methodically working toward your goal?
Redundant adjectives and nouns transportation vehicle, tactful diplomacy, successful victory, twenty-four-hour day, time schedule, alternative choices, component part
Redundant nouns parts and components, means and methods, ways and means, use and implementation, source and origin, plain and humble
Redundant verbs behave and conduct oneself; scheming and planning; discusses and explains

Here are some examples of these redundant adjectives and nouns, adverbs and verbs, adverbs and adjectives as well as redundant pairs of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs:

Redundant words Revision
IRH, Inc., utilizes analytical tools developed by its research group to determine the optimal policies, strategies, and procedures to meet clients' objectives. IRH, Inc., utilizes analytical tools developed by its research group to determine the best strategies to meet clients' objectives.
A trademark is either any word, term, or phrase, or combination of words, terms, or phrases, that identifies and designates the source of the goods or products of one party from those of others. A trademark is any word, term, or phrase, or combination of words or phrases, that identifies the source of the goods of one party from those of others. (Trademarks include more than this definition—this is for demonstration only.)
It is important for persons to read the notes, advice and information detailed opposite and then complete all sections of the form prior to its immediate return to the agency via the envelope provided. Please read the instructions before filling out the form, and then send it back as soon as possible in the envelope provided.
High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process. Good schools enable people to learn more.
At this point in time, our time schedules do not allow or permit further or additional work tasks. Our schedules are full!
With reference to the fact that the company is deficient in manufacturing and production space, the contract may in all probability be awarded to some other enterprise. The company may not be awarded the contract because it lacks production facilities.

Pompous Word Choice

Another classic form of wordiness is to use a fancy multi-syllable word when a simpler, single-syllable word will do—for example, "component" instead of "part" or "utilize" instead of "use." Here are some additional examples of "fancy" words and their humble counterparts:

Multisyllable word Simpler version
optimal best
component part
utilize use
actuate start
differentiation difference
implementation use
transpose switch
bifurcate split
instantiation occurrence, event
transpire occur, happen
concurrence agreement
tripartite three-part
relinquish yield, give up
commence start
termination end
fabricate make
endeavor try
initiate begin
optimal best

Pompous-language version Plain-English version
Teachers must facilitate students in their process of enculturation into electronic conferencing literacy. Teachers must help students get used to online conferences.
Students must learn how this medium constrains and enables their discourse production and exchange. Students must learn how online conferencing affects their communications.
Teachers must co-construct the intellectual, social and political space that is the electronic conference with their students in a dynamic manner. Teachers must build the atmosphere of the online conference with their students.
Students must see that the rhetoricity of constantly shifting roles as discourse producers and consumers in the interactive dynamics of discursive exchange in a rapid electronic-delivery system is the same that occurs between speakers and listeners during oral conversation. Students must understand that their roles as writers and readers in online conferences rapidly shift much the way that their roles as speakers and listeners do in oral conversations.

Simple Wordiness

When you've revised the bad passives, noun stacks, redundant phrasing, and other such sentence-style problems out of your drafts, you may still find another sort of wordiness problem. It involves using unnecessary detail, excessive specifics, useless qualifiers, and needless fussy overspecification. For example, the "(s)" rarely has any place except in legal writing. Except in legal text, why show numbers both as numerals and as words, for example, "the classroom holds twenty-seven (27) students"? Here are some examples and their revisions:

Wordy When people are rigidly entrenched in their viewpoints, they shut out the arguments of the other side.
Revised When people are entrenched, they shut out opposing arguments. ("entrenched" means "rigid." The context is persuasion; "in their viewpoints" is obvious. "opposing" saves 3 words! Fewer words; more immediacy and impact!)

Wordy Solicited proposals are those that have been requested in some way by the customer—for example, by means of an RFP. Unsolicited proposals have not been requested—they come in the mail or through the door unexpected, "out of the blue." ("those that have been" is wordy and stodgy. "in some way" piles on unneeded words. "out of the blue" repeats "unexpected.")
Revised Solicited proposals are requested by the customer—for example, by means of an RFP. Unsolicited proposals have not been requested—they come in the mail or through the door unexpected.

Wordy However, if your way of doing the project will produce better outcomes, then a discussion of results, benefits, and feasibility may indeed be in order even in a solicited proposal. (Readers know that we are talking about a project, and "your way of doing the project" is needlessly, wordily remindful.)
Revised However, if your approach will produce better outcomes, then a discussion of results, benefits, and feasibility may indeed be in order even in a solicited proposal.

Wordy Technical writers write, right? Actually, studies of full-time technical writers show that they write only about one-fourth of the time that they spend on the job.
Revised Technical writers write, right? Actually, studies of full-time technical writers show that they write only about one-fourth of their work time. (A savings of only 4 words, but imagine the cumulative effect across a lengthy document!)

Wordy Technical-writing skills such as those presented in this book are valuable in the various sorts of documents you prepare for other courses.
Revised The technical-writing skills presented here are valuable in the documents you prepare for other courses. (A savings of 7 words!)

Wordy Another important aspect of my experience in the IS department has been the development of my customer service skills. I have received several recognition awards from customers.
Revised In the IS department, I have also done customer-service work, for which I have received several recognition awards. (Nearly fifty-percent cut, and good riddance to the evil "another important aspect of.")

Wordy An encyclopedia is a good place to start on a topic that you are not familiar with, and it is particularly helpful to use a subject-specific encyclopedia with articles written by experts in a field.
Revised An encyclopedia is a good place to start on an unfamiliar topic—in particular, a subject-specific encyclopedia with articles written by experts. ("Unfamiliar" saves 5 words. Converting the second independent clause to a phrase and getting rid of "in a field" saves another 9 words. And where else do "experts" live?)


Workshop—Sentence Style

Use the following for practice on the sentence-style problems covered in the preceding:


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