Clarity is always the preeminent concern when writing, and the most important factors that determine a clear sentence are word choice, sentence structure, and punctuation.
People often associate clarity with sentence length, but a 55-word sentence can be immediately clear, and a 12-word sentence can leave you puzzled. It depends on whether the words are easy to grasp, the sentence is easy to follow, and the punctuation conveys a clear meaning.
- word choice – use words from everyday conversation, because those words are usually shorter (fewer syllables), more specific, and more familiar to people. Technical language or complex concepts are abstract, and the brain does not process such words easily.
- sentence structure – Do you have any long introductory clauses or phrases, or long elements in the middle of the sentence, making it a long, twisted, spaghetti sentence? Clauses and phrases that introduce the main idea of the sentence are great for adding variety to your sentence structure, but don’t make them 25 words long.
- punctuation – The purpose of punctuation is to help readers understand the meaning of the sentence. Punctuation separates items, shows the relationship between elements, creates emphasis, and signals that something is subordinate, or less important. Careful punctuation goes a long way toward determining how clear the sentence is.
Most people read this opening paragraph of a Wall Street Journal story with little difficulty:
Pharmacol, trying to stay one step ahead of AIDS activists and generic-drug competition, said it would cut the price of its new once-a-day pill Stocrin to under $1 a day in the poorest and hardest-hit countries, a more than 30-percent reduction from the current price.
You don’t realize that it is 50 words long because you breeze through language that is easy to grasp. Only one word in the entire sentence has four syllables, three words have three syllables, and the remaining 46 have one or two.