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The importance of clarity









 Be careful: Focus on clarity when you write.

Write to be understood, speak to be heard, read to grow…

Lawrence Clark and Powell

This is perhaps the most vital aspect of effective communication. What you write has to be clear, concise and informative. Robert Louis Stevenson, one of the masters of English language once said: “The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean.”If that be the case with a towering literary figure, imagine the plight of ordinary mortals like us.

The line has been quoted here to stress the need for exercising maximum caution, lest we should be misunderstood by the readers.

“If any man wishes to write in a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts,” said Goethe.

The purpose of a message would be lost if the reader fails to follow it in full. Confusion may be caused by careless wording or wrong logic. There should be no room for ambiguity.

“Four basic premises of writing: clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity,” said William Zinsser, American writer and editor. What are the steps we can adopt for ensuring clarity?

Avoid ambiguity

Ambiguity has been classified based on the way it arises. Let us not go into its details.

A word with two or more meanings can lead to ambiguity. Look at the sentence, ‘The tailor pressed one suit in his shop and one in the municipal court.’

The word press has two different meanings; so has the word suit. This kind of ambiguity is sometimes termed lexical. A cynic once said, the word ‘ambiguous’ itself is ambiguous. ‘Japanese history teacher’ is another type. This causes ambiguity because of two possible structures. It may mean a teacher of Japanese history or a Japanese national teaching history. An instance of structural ambiguity.

See the following examples also, with a view to preventing such errors in your script.

•Visiting relatives can be boring. (What is boring? Visiting or relatives?)

•The teacher hit the boy with a book. (Hit with the book or boy with a book?)

•She ate the biscuits on the bed. (Biscuits that were on the bed, or ate while sitting on the bed?)

•Teacher strikes idle kids. (Teacher thrashing kids, or strike forcing kids to idle?)

•He has a good son. (Good in what respect?)

•Short men and women (Are the women also short?)

•We should have more highly skilled staff. (Larger number or better skilled?)

•Tickets for chess are available in the reception. (What is in the reception – ticket or chess?)

•He bought a dining table for his mother-in-law with six legs. (Table or mother-in-law has all these legs? This indeed is an error, and not just ambiguity.)

Ambiguous headlines

•Stolen chair found by tree

•Film actresses appeal to the Prime Minister

•Three years for terrifying policeman

•Two cars collide, one dies

•Two brothers reunited after ten years in airport

•Sessions court to try shooting defendant

In the spoken language, ambiguity is usually resolved based on the context. None would take ‘ice scream’ for ‘I scream’, though both sound the same.


•Put only one idea in a sentence.

•Avoid too many dependent clauses.

•Make your passage concise. Bring out the points straightaway.

•Avoid passive voice – it may conceal information. (For example, if you write ‘the order was issued’, you do not reveal who issued the order. ‘The collector issued the order’ has better clarity.)

If the same word has to be repeated in a sentence for ensuring clarity, do not hesitate to do so. “The son got irritated when his father did not look at him when he was speaking” leaves us in doubt as to who was speaking. If you mean that the son was speaking, specify that instead of using the pronoun ‘he’.

•Avoid noun chains (noun strings). For example do not write, “The minister spoke of power generation enhancement project reports.” Instead you can write, “The minister spoke of project reports on enhancing generation of power.”

•As far as possible, avoid interrupting a main clause with a subordinate clause. Look at the sentence – “We face, because we do not build new power houses, shortage of power.” The interruption in the main clause spoils the clarity of the sentence. Perhaps the writer was preoccupied with the lapse in building new power houses. But that is no excuse for taxing the reader. Try to rewrite the sentence as “We face shortage of power because we do not build new power houses.” The change greatly enhances clarity.

If a new idea is to be introduced, first mention something that the reader already knows, and then establish a link to the new. No knowledge is totally independent. We learn new things through the extension of our prior knowledge.

You can relate a new idea to a known fact or piece of other information familiar to the reader. This simplifies the task of comprehension that the reader faces.

Word of caution

You should write with caution, since you cannot take back what you have written and transmitted to someone.

Errors will stand out, unlike in spoken communication. In writing you have to take care of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and style. Choice of words is important, since you cannot make changes in what you have communicated.

© Copyright 2000 – 2007 The Hindu


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