Walter asked us to fix this sentence for a comic:

He left town a villain, but when he returned he was considered to be heroic.

It looks a little clumsy, but why? One reason might be that the two parts of the sentence are quite different in style.

The first part, ‘He left town a villain’, is straightforward and powerful. In theory it’s a bit ambiguous, but the reader is unlikely to misread it as ‘he left a villain in the town’. We interpret the phrase as ‘He left town [with the people of the town considering him to be] a villain’.

The second part ‘but when he returned he was considered to be heroic’ is more complex. The phrase ‘he was considered to be’ uses the passive voice, and doesn’t tell us who is doing the considering — probably the people of the town again. Let’s use the same structure as the first phrase: ‘but he returned [with the people of the town considering him to be] heroic.’

And ‘heroic’ is given as a comparison to ‘a villain’, but it would be better to match the two parts of the comparison. You could compare villain and hero, or villainous and heroic. Let’s pick the simpler one. This gives us:

He left town a villain, but returned a hero.

What do you think?

Cowboy picture from Flickr user Kevin Zollman, used (with text added) under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Here’s another post from Rosie. JA sent us this memo sentence.

The matters for Judicial Review, Court of Appeal, Extradition, Leave for Supreme Court Appeals, Administrative other and Dishonesty other related to the genocide and criminal activity are finalised. These matters were represented by different counsels.

Three things make the first sentence hard to understand on one reading.

  • The reader has to hold a list of items (‘the various matters’) in their head while they read on to find out what the verb is (‘are finalised’).
  • The verb form ‘are finalised’ can be ambiguous — the present form of the passive voice can mean that things are ongoing. Consider writing ‘are complete’ or ‘have been finalised’ to show that the work is finished.
  • It’s not clear whether all or just the last two items are ‘related to the genocide and criminal activity’.

So the first task is to bring the subject (‘matters’) and the verb (‘are finalised’) closer together. Try to keep the subject and verb in a sentence no more than eight words apart. The list items could become a bullet point list or just come after the verb.

The following matters are finalised: Judicial Review, Court of Appeal, Extradition, Leave for Supreme Court Appeals, Administrative other and Dishonesty other related to the genocide and criminal activity. These matters were represented by different counsels.

Or even more simply,

We have finalised the Judicial Review, Court of Appeal Extradition, Leave for Supreme Court Appeals, Administrative other and Dishonesty other matters related to the genocide and criminal activity.

The second task is to clarify which matters are ‘related to the genocide and criminal activity’. If all matters are related to the genocide and criminal activity, move the quoted words to the beginning of the list or to the next sentence.

We have finalised matters related to the genocide and criminal activity: the Judicial Review, Court of Appeal Extradition, Leave for Supreme Court Appeals, Administrative other and Dishonesty other matters.

Or

We have finalised the Judicial Review, Court of Appeal Extradition, Leave for Supreme Court Appeals, Administrative other and Dishonesty other matters. These matters related to the genocide and criminal activity were represented by different counsels.

If only ‘Administrative other and Dishonesty other’ matters are ‘related to the genocide and criminal activity’, then insert ‘and’ to separate these items from earlier items.

The matters for Judicial Review, Court of Appeal, Extradition, Leave for Supreme Court Appeals, and Administrative other and Dishonesty other matters related to the genocide and criminal activity, are complete. These matters were represented by different counsels.

Here’s a post by Rosie. Nicole needs a clear sentence so that her supervisors send her the information she wants. In her original sentence, she writes:

I would like to ask each one of you to send me what you see are the goals for implementing a resource management tool.

Nicole’s original sentence mixes words of polite request with the information she wants her supervisors to send — and the important information she wants is at the end of the sentence.

Using two sentences would allow Nicole to make the request and be clear about the information she wants. Here’s our suggestion:

I would like to set clear goals for implementing a resource management tool. Please send me your thoughts about how you want this tool to be used, so that I can include the team’s expectations in my goals.

Before this sentence, Nicole may need to explain more about exactly what the ‘resource management tool’ is and how it could be used.

This sentence comes from a blog post about bike helmets:

That doesn’t mean I don’t think removing the [bike] helmet law shouldn’t happen, in fact quite the opposite.

It’s a great example of double negatives – in fact the reader gets turned around four times, enough to get dizzy! Let’s unpick it. I think the sentence suffers from hurried editing. From the context, this sentence should have been written originally as:

That doesn’t mean I think removing the [bike] helmet law shouldn’t happen, in fact quite the opposite.

Now let’s unpick the remaining sentence. The repeated negatives are confusing, so let’s replace some of them with positive statements that have the same meaning. We’ll keep the leading ‘doesn’t’ because it is the link to the earlier part of the passage.

That doesn’t mean I want to keep the [bike] helmet law, in fact quite the opposite.

One more step could make the sentence even clearer, at the cost of being slightly repetitious.

That doesn’t mean I want to keep the [bike] helmet law – I would like the law to be removed.

What do you think? Is that clearer? Does it show the same strength of feeling as the original?

 

Here’s a sentence from Bob.

The reason he lost the match was because he stayed up late the night before.

Compared to most of the sentences we receive, this one’s nice and short, and the message is clear. There’s a slight problem with the grammar though. The sentence begins with ‘The reason…’, so we don’t need to use ‘because’ to join the parts of the sentence as well – both ‘the reason’ and ‘because’ signal the same thing. We can simply write:

The reason he lost the match was that he stayed up late the night before.

A simpler alternative would be:

He lost the match because he stayed up late the night before.

 

 

 

Here’s a sentence from the annual report of a large organisation.

We would like to share with the UN headquarters and through it, every region of the world, [our] 65 years of experience and expertise in facilitating and securing trade and international road transport to drive economic and social development, progress, prosperity and ultimately peace.

What’s wrong with this sentence? Well, it’s pretty long for a start (44 words). More importantly, it contains several ideas. The reader has to think about each individual idea, and then assemble the overall messaeg in their mind.

We recommend giving each idea its own sentence, and using the structure and order of the sentences to make the relationships clear.

Trying to separate out the ideas shows us that the original sentence was ambiguous. Does the organisation have years of experience contributing to prosperity? Or does the organisation look forward to contributing to prosperity through a link with the UN? It’s not clear. We’ll assume for the moment that it’s experience.

With the ideas each given their own sentence, we can rearrange them to give this paragraph:

We have 65 years of experience and expertise in facilitating and securing trade and international road transport. Our work contributes to economic and social development, progress, prosperity and ultimately peace.

We would like to share our work with the UN headquarters. Doing this should benefit every region of the world.

Phrases like ‘experience and expertise in facilitating and securing’ often signal a complex concept worth explaining clearly as well. A job for version two perhaps! Hopefully you can see that even without changing the wording much, a clear structure makes the ideas much easier to understand.

What do you think?

Rebekah sent us the following sentence about investment banking. I’ve included the three sentences before it for context, but I won’t try to rewrite those. I’ve also taken out some figures to keep the passage anonymous.

Here’s the original, with the chosen sentence in bold:

Our organisation is committed to the New Zealand market and we have been managing investment funds in New Zealand since the 19xxs. Currently we have around $xx billion funds under management and manage funds on behalf of xx institutional clients in New Zealand.

We offer global reach, with talented and experienced investment professionals on the ground in major markets, sourcing and managing compelling investment opportunities for clients.

This experience and leadership across all key asset classes makes our clients the key beneficiaries of the leading and best informed investment thinking and decision making in the ever-evolving investment landscape. 

The passage contains some ‘solid’ information, but also quite a bit of financial jargon. The technical terms could confuse many readers. The sentence itself is long, and it makes several separate points. Even when writing for a knowledgeable audience, it’s good to be as simple as possible.

First, I’ll look at the logic in the whole passage.

  • The first paragraph describes the experience that is mentioned in the sentence we’re looking at
  • The second paragraph relates to the leadership that is mentioned in the sentence we’re looking at, although I would argue it doesn’t specifically prove leadership itself
  • ‘Our’ sentence suggests that the experience and leadership support good investment thinking and decision making, and that this is good for clients
  • The same sentence also mentions the changing nature of investment.

Let’s break this down into chunks. It’s a good principle to generally only make one point with each sentence. This is especially important when the language is complex or technical.

We have experience and leadership across all key asset classes
(so)
we have the leading and best informed investment thinking and decision making
(and the)
investment landscape (is) ever-evolving
(so)
our clients reap the rewards.

Next, let’s look at some technical language — ‘asset classes’. This has a technical meaning referring to types of similar investments, such as stocks or bonds. Some readers will understand this, but I suggest writing ‘types of investments’. The more general wording doesn’t affect the meaning here.

Some of the other phrases include jargon. Having leadership across types of investment implies having the best investment performance, so it’s best to make that claim directly if it is true. Avoid ‘best informed’. It’s an extension of ‘well informed’, and a very specific claim for something that’s difficult to measure or prove. How do you measure informedness? The meaning here is that the investment specialists are knowledgeable and keep up with market news, and that this helps them make good investment decisions.

The outcome
Rewriting only the chosen sentence, I suggest something like:

We have experience and class-leading performance in all types of investment. Our investment specialists are knowledgeable and keep up with market news — especially important in an investment environment that is always changing. They make excellent investment decisions, and our clients benefit.

It might be worth rewriting the whole passage. That would make it easier to organise the logic of the information.