Avoid stuffy language and use familiar words instead.

Posted: January 24th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Editing, Plain English: Tips | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Avoid stuffy, academic language. Use familiar, concrete words instead. Here are some plain English alternatives to some common stuffy phrases.

In all likelihood likely, probably
Let me offer an explanation of the cause. Let me explain why.
statement for professional services bill
Enclosed please find. . . . I have enclosed . . . .
presently soon, now
Pursuant to our conversation . . . . As we discussed . . . .
Per your request . . . . As you asked . . . .
I am of the mind that . . . . EEEEEEK! (There is no cure – just delete it.)
Signage sign
Of particular import to this issue . . . . In particular,
He was aware that . . . . He knew that . . . .
He shall have the ability to . . . . He can . . . .

So how stuffy are your words?


P.S. My book, The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing: Proven Tools and Techniques has hardly any stuffy words.

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One Comment on “Avoid stuffy language and use familiar words instead.”

  1. 1 How to understand and develop your business brand tone said at 5:33 pm on September 9th, 2015:

    […] threw up an excellent post from the blog ‘A lawyer’s guide to writing’, titled ‘Avoid stuffy language and use real words instead’.) Well done Marie […]

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Strong Verbs Add Zing to Your Writing

Posted: October 4th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Plain English: Tips | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Colorful verbs convey images and add punch to your writing. Babies wail. Toddlers whine. Children fidget. Teenagers flirt. Hearts flutter. Later in life, traffic crawls, markets seize or melt and the right cars sip gas.

Colorful verbs can convey passion, outrage and a strong sense of right and wrong. In the Declaration of Independence, our founding fathers chose Biblical verbs to convey the depth of their oppression by the King of England: “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.”  With verbs like that, who would doubt the justice of their cause? Or consider the Gettysburg address, in which Lincoln lamented that “we cannot dedicate . . . we cannot consecrate . . . we cannot hallow . . . this ground.”

Many of your favorite childhood friends also depended on strong verbs. Remember when the wild things “roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes?” Of course you remember. You remember so well that I don’t need to remind you that this passage comes from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Strong verbs cement themselves in your memory.

And there are descriptive verbs for every phase in your life, including your years practicing law. Legislation may falter in the House or sail through Congress. Plaintiffs malinger. Defendants plead. Witnesses mumble, squirm, and duck questions. Other questions elicit responses. Courts admonish. Companies don’t simply fail to disclose losses. They hide those losses. And those losses then propel companies into dangerous financial positions, where they teeter on the verge of bankruptcy.

Colorful verbs can bring passion to judicial opinions, as well. Consider Justice Stevens’s dissent in Citizens United. There, Stevens lamented that “the majority blazes through our precedents. . . .”  Citizens United v. Federal Election Com’n, 130 S. Ct. 876, 930 (2010) (Stevens dissenting).

Both life and the law happen in color so never settle for black and white verbs.

P.S. My book contains lots of strong verbs!

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His or Her? Avoid the Gender Minefield by Using Plurals.

Posted: April 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Grammar, Punctuation, and Usage, Plain English: Tips | Tags: , , | No Comments »

It’s hard isn’t it? As lawyers, we don’t always know the gender of the person we are writing about or we are writing about abstract issues that could apply to anyone—male or female. His sounds sexist and it is inaccurate where you don’t know the gender. Her sounds a little too political. His or Her is more accurate than either word alone, but it still sounds awkward and technical.

You can avoid the gender minefield by using plurals. Rewrite A student may leave his or her books on the tables as Students may leave their books on the tables.

And never use his/her. His/her fails the test for plain English because it is not even pronounceable.

In a longer work, such as a book, you can always turn to the marvelous Dr. Spock for an answer. In his classic book, Baby and Child Care, Dr. Spock talked about his abstract babies by alternating between his and her. It worked in 1946 and it is still a good technique. (Dr. Spock introduced each abstract baby, by saying “Let’s say it’s a boy (or a girl).”  That introduction that would not be necessary today, since we are accustomed to thinking across genders.)


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How to Proof for Formatting Errors

Posted: March 23rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Plain English: Tips | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

As you get close to finishing your paper, work in a view that shows what your paper will look like when printed. In Microsoft Word, my favorite views are Print Layout and Full Screen Reading View. If you have been working with Track Changes turned on and are not ready to accept all changes, review the document in Final view, without markups showing. (Click the Review Tab/go to the Tracking box/keep Track Changes enabled/select Final (not Final Show Markup)). Editing in these views is similar to editing on hard copy—only better because you can make the actual corrections as you go.

The Print Preview view is particularly useful for catching formatting errors. (To get to Print Preview view, click on File and select Print or use CTRL+F2. The Print Preview view will show on the right of your screen.) Scroll through your paper quickly, using the page up and page down keys, to review for formatting and style. For example, scroll through to check that all Roman-numeral or primary-level headings are written in parallel construction, such as sentences or phrases. Now go back to the beginning and review each heading quickly for consistency in capitalization, such as the use of initial caps. Now scroll through even more quickly to be sure that those headings are sequentially numbered. Finally, page through at warp speed to check indents and line-spacing. Next, look for any tables to be sure that they are all aligned correctly. Now check page numbers. Next, drop down to your subheadings or secondary headings and run those headings through the same levels of review. If you page through at lightening speed, your eye will easily pick up on any problems with margins, indents or spacing. Indeed, as you proof some of these design elements, your eye can stay in the same place on the screen—making it easier to pick up things like a shift in indents or margins.

Yes, this is a multi-step process, but each step goes quickly. And the errors show up in neon lights if you are focusing a laser eye on looking only for that type of error.

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More Clichés: Let’s Get our Ducks in a Row!

Posted: March 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Most Popular Posts, Plain English: Tips | Tags: , , | No Comments »

We lawyers are not alone in our use of clichés. Clichés seem to have infiltrated most professions. Police fear the word now and jazz it up to at this point in time and their investigations are always ongoing. In the business world, all job applicants are innovative, results-oriented, dynamic team players with a proven track record. Once those team players are hired, they are at the mercy of human resources departments that are always magnanimously reaching out to someone or, less magnanimously, downsizing or reallocating resources. The business world is relentlessly proactive and cheerily focused on optimizing results and utilizing resources. In those hallowed halls of business, someone always wants to dialogue, to circle back, or to get face time. There are matrices to build and paradigm shifts to navigate. To be a valued employee, you must row in the same direction, hit the ground running, and get your ducks in a row. And once your ducks are in a row, you must be on your game so that you can run a smell test to discern when someone has put lipstick on a pig.

If your husbandry skills are lacking, you can always leave the business world for academia where students must demonstrate competency or proficiency and avoid risky behaviors. But educators are ready to help by providing support services, by nurturing life-long learners, and by encouraging emerging readers. (But I do admire the optimism!) And when those emerging readers finish emerging, they can learn about books from literary critics, who always seem to find the books that are translucent, gripping, haunting, riveting, compelling, lyrical and evocative.

Admittedly, some professional clichés serve a real purpose in spoken language. They are picturesque or funny and the shared language encourages bonding among enslaved tribes. But clichés don’t belong in our writing because our writing should be slightly more formal than our speech.

So let your writing identify you as a member of the human race, rather than as a member of a particular profession. Now, I’m off to put lipstick on my pig . . . .

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Legal Clichés that Should Be Illegal

Posted: February 28th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Plain English: Tips | Tags: , | No Comments »

Welcome to cliché week on my blog! Every profession has its own clichés. This week, we’ll review some common clichés in the legal profession and the world beyond.

Clichés are a writer’s cop-out. Using clichés suggests that you can’t find your own words. Avoid tiresome clichés and speak human instead.

Let’s start with some common legal clichés :

  • within the purview of
  • slippery slope
  • Achilles’ heel
  • Pandora’s box
  • fishing expedition
  • part and parcel
  • lion’s share
  • pulled out of whole cloth
  • can’t see the forest for the trees
  • the devil is in the details
  • all fours
  • red herring
  • fraught with peril
  • second bite at the apple
  • cut to the chase
  • it is axiomatic that
  • eminently qualified
  • incumbent upon
  • dilatory tactics
  • begs the question

… and so on ad nauseum.

Coming next: clichés from other fields, such as human resources. (Friends, we are not alone.)

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Steer clear of the school of redundancy school.

Posted: February 17th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Plain English: Tips | 2 Comments »

As writers, we often try to add emphasis by piling similar words on top of each other—words that are often redundant and add little. Stick with the unadorned word and avoid redundant phrases, such as these:

Redundant phrases                            why

the end result                                       All results are end results.

the general public                                The public means the general public.

interrelationships                                  All relations are inter.

personal friends                                    All friends are personal.

return back                                          There is no place to return to but back.

individual person                                   Each person is an individual.

the upcoming future                             The future is always upcoming.

2 Comments on “Steer clear of the school of redundancy school.”

  1. 1 Oliver Lawrence said at 4:04 pm on February 17th, 2012:

    For ‘upcoming future’, presumably the mythical writer meant ‘immediate future’, as opposed to the long term. And you can have ‘interim results’, especially in a financial context, so I don’t think ‘end result’ is necessarily tautologous.

    Redundancy can also arise within a single word, as the lamentable ‘irregardless’ (try ‘regardless’ or ‘irrespective’ instead) reminds us.

  2. 2 mariebuckley said at 3:49 pm on March 1st, 2012:

    All good points. But “immediate future” is much better than “upcoming future.” I see your point on financial results, too. Thanks for pointing these out.

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Don’t bring no double negatives . . .

Posted: February 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Plain English: Tips | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

We all know to avoid double negatives, such as “He is not bringing no bananas.” But we should be equally wary of the double or triple conceptual negative, in which one negative concept cancels out another negative concept, which cancels out the original negative concept.

For example, what is “a decision vacating an injunction prohibiting the state from requiring a sex offender to register?” Think positively and say “The decision allows the state to require a sex offender to register.” If you must explain the procedure more precisely, do so in a follow up sentence: “Specifically, the court vacated an injunction. . . .” (Your reader will forgive the conceptual double negative in the “specifics” if you have already translated the double negative for them.) What does it mean if “A court reversed a decision enjoining the enforcement of a regulation that prohibited the use of alcohol?” Simply say that “The Appellate court allowed the town to prohibit the use of alcohol” and follow up with a sentence detailing the procedural history, if necessary. “The speech would not be an unprotected expression under the First Amendment” means that “The speech would be a protected expression.” “The court voted not to allow” means that “The court voted to prohibit.” “It is unlikely to be inaccurate” means “It is likely accurate.”

So don’t be so negative. Stay positive!


P. S. My book, The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing (ABA 2011), zealously avoids double negatives.  #shamelessbookpromotion



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Avoid phrases beginning with “it is.”

Posted: February 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Most Popular Posts, Plain English: Tips | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

It is important to a  Avoid throat-clearing phrases that begin with it is, such as it is clear that or it is possible that. Nine times out of ten, you can delete the phrase without sacrificing meaning.

If the phrase does add some nuance, rewrite the phrase with an adverb.  For example, It is apparent that the company lost the documents should be rewritten as The company apparently lost the documents.  (Yes, I know. I’m violating my own rule about avoiding adverbs. But apparently adds a nuance here that is worth keeping. Apparently means that you didn’t see the company lose the documents, but the company no longer has the documents, so you have brilliantly concluded that they just might be lost.)

Here are some common it is phrases that deserve the ax or corrective surgery:

  • It is clear that (If it is so clear, then why must you point it out?)
  • It is logical that  (You should not need to point out the logic in your argument. The logic should sing through on its own.)
  • It is likely that (Just move likely into the sentence, as in The court will likely hold . . . .)
  • It may be that (Oh dear. Just say possibly.)
  • It is apparent that (Try apparently.)
  • It is probable that (Just use may as the main verb in the sentence, as in The company may make an offer.)
  • It is imperative to note that ( EEEEEK!)
  • It goes without saying that (Then why are you saying it?)
  • It is axiomatic that (Translation: It is axiomatic that this sentence was not written by a thinking, feeling human being.)
  • It follows that (This phrase suggests that it probably doesn’t follow at all.)

In all my years driving a purple pen, I’ve seen only a few (as in two) it is phrases that are worth keeping. I like it is well established that and it is black letter law that. These phrases convey the weight of the authority and add substance to the sentence, so they earn their weight on the page.

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2 Comments on “Avoid phrases beginning with “it is.””

  1. 1 Oliver Lawrence said at 10:09 pm on February 15th, 2012:

    Great stuff! Expunge those expletives!

  2. 2 mariebuckley said at 9:02 pm on February 16th, 2012:

    Well – I guess that’s another way of putting it!

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Avoid adverbs and use a strong verb instead.

Posted: January 31st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Most Popular Posts, Plain English: Tips | Tags: , | No Comments »

My grandmother-in-law—an accomplished poet and a wise woman—once advised me that Adverbs are not your friend, Dearie. She’s right. Adverbs don’t belong in your writing because they add little and often backfire. For example, The defendant actively disputes that claim simply means that The defendant disputes that claim.  (Forgive my use of the adverb simply. I like the emphasis it adds here.) The company strongly cautioned is hesitant and bureaucratic. The company banned is stronger and more believable. Rather than use an adverb, describe the conduct specifically. For example, replace The company thoroughly met its obligations to warn with The company explained the risk of nerve impairment.

Adverbs can also be evasive. Avoid hedging words such as generallyusuallycustomarily, or basic. An assertion that Client X usually honored gift certificates will translate as But Client X didn’t honor this gift certificateThe contract is absolutely clear means that The contract is clear or—more likely—that The contract is not clear at all. The defendant arguably met its obligations means that The defendant did not meet its obligations this time.

Search for ly as part of your proofreading edit to weed out pesky adverbs, such as plainlyclearly, or patently.


So how strong are your verbs?

P.S. Chapter 4 of My Book, which covers Plain English and Other Tricks to Help You Sound Human, contains more plain English tips like this.


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In legal argument, avoid the mysterious “one.”

Posted: January 23rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Plain English: Tips, The Argument or Analysis | No Comments »

In legal argument, avoid the third person “one,” as in “one could argue” or “one might add.” Too many “ones” arguing can lead to ball bouncing—a distracting batting back and forth of ideas.  Also avoid “on the one hand” because it leaves the reader waiting for you to talk about “the other hand,” which is like leaving your reader to wait for an invisible shoe to drop.

Simply get to the point. Don’t say:

One could argue that the world is flat.

Simply say:

The world is flat.

Chances are that enough parties are already involved in your case, so you don’t need to add a mysterious, invisible player.


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Vary the length of your sentences.

Posted: December 15th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Plain English: Tips | No Comments »

While you should keep your sentences short, a long string of short sentences can sound choppy. Strive for rhythm and cadence. Vary your short sentences with an occasional longer sentence. Simply combine two short sentences in the middle of your paragraph to relieve the tedium of too many choppy sentences.

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Use “Signal” Words to Tell the Reader Where You Are Going.

Posted: December 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Plain English: Tips, The Argument or Analysis | Tags: | No Comments »

Think of your argument or analysis as a line drive from point A to point B. Occasionally, you must detour to discuss an exception or a contradictory point. Your reader will appreciate directional signals at those transitions. ”Similarly,” “for example,” “in particular” and “in addition” let the reader know that you are developing the main point. “However,” “although” and “by contrast” show that you are taking a detour to discuss an exception to a rule or to distinguish opposing authority. “Therefore” signals a conclusion. “Again” tells your reader that, yes, you have already discussed this point so they can relax. These directional signals are powerful tools that let your reader know the value of a sentence before they read that sentence.

Here are some helpful “signal” words:

  • First, Second, Third
  • For example
  • Similarly
  • In particular
  • By contrast
  • However or But
  • Again
  • Also
  • Therefore
  • Finally (every reader’s favorite word).

But be careful not to begin every sentence within a paragraph with a signal word or your sentences will sound formulaic. Vary the form of your sentences occasionally. For example, instead of saying “Similarly, in Smith v. Jones, the court held that….” say “In Smith v. Jones, the court also held that …. ”

So are you sending good signals to your reader?

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You May Use Your Massive Vocabulary.

Posted: December 9th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Plain English: Tips | No Comments »

Plain English does not mean simple English. You are entitled to use your massive vocabulary, but use that vocabulary to show precision and convey nuance rather than to show off. Because colorful words convey images, they add a sparkle to your writing.

Write about a seminal case, a pivotal event, a bare declaration, a cascade of events, a vital resource, a critical need, a haphazard response, escalating hostilities, or a perfunctory answer. Explain how the company parsed its words or tried to mollify its customers through a pervasive campaign. A letter may be lucid, a speaker articulate and a visitor urbane. A defendant’s action may frustrate the parties’ agreement and poorly written briefs may confuse the issue. An outdated case may be a relic from a bygone era. A message may be cryptic and a building may be a fortress. Unruly students don’t have “altercations.” As Justice Roberts explained in Frederick v. Morse, 551 U.S. 393, they scuffle.

An artful choice of words marks a deft, confident writer. Fancy words chosen only to impress—such as legalese—mark the amateur.

So how nuanced is your vocabulary?

P.S. from the shameless self-promotion department: My book contains many more helpful tips like this and you can hold it in your hands!


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Choose words based on how they sound.

Posted: November 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Plain English: Tips | Tags: , | No Comments »

Write as if your paper were going to be read out loud and choose words for their spoken impact. The same techniques that work for poets often work in prose, as well. Your words should have rhythm—a pleasing cadence of stressed and unstressed syllables within sentences and an appealing variation between short and long sentences.

For example, alliteration puts punch in your writing if you keep it subtle and don’t overuse it. Consider the famous brief for the schoolchildren in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) (also cited in Steven Stark’s Writing to Win, Main Street Books, 1999). There, Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues used alliteration to summarily distinguish the other side’s cases. In Brown, the Board of Education’s brief cited equal protection cases that raised common nuisance issues, such as noise or overhanging cornices. Marshall and his colleagues dismissed that precedent with one memorable phrase. They argued that those cases involved a mere “cautious calculation of conveniencesthat had no bearing on the essential rights undermined by segregated education. The phrase “a cautious calculation of conveniences” is a pithy sound-bite—made memorable through alliteration—that dismisses and distinguishes all the opposing authority Marshall faced.

Listen as you write and let your ear be your guide.

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Use Three Letter Words (And, But, Yet, Nor) to Kick Your Sentences Off to a Strong Start

Posted: November 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Most Popular Posts, Plain English: Tips | No Comments »

Certain four-letter words never belong in professional writing. But why are lawyers so afraid of starting sentences with three-letter words such as but, and, yet or nor? Three-letter words are strong sentence starters because they help you control the pace and rhythm of your writing. Using them will liberate your style. (But is particularly liberating. Try it. You’ll see.)

Don’t be afraid. You will be in good company if you begin sentences with three-letter words. Supreme Court justices routinely begin sentences with but, and, yet and nor. Indeed, they slip into three-letter sentence starters once they are deep into their argument and their writing is at its most earnest. Consider these examples from various justices writing in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701, 748 (2007):

  • But I am quite comfortable in the company I keep.”

551 U.S. at 772 (Justice Thomas concurring)

  • But the district vigorously defends the constitutionality of its race-based program.”

– 551 U.S. at 719 (Justice Roberts, writing for majority)

  • And my view was the rallying cry for the lawyers who litigated Brown.”

551 U.S. at 772 (Justice Kennedy concurring)

  •  “And appropriately so.”

551 U. S. at 752 (Justice Thomas, concurring).

  • Yet our tradition is to go beyond present achievements, however insignificant . . .”

551 U. S. at 752 (Justice Kennedy, concurring).

  • Yet the plurality would deprive them of at least one tool that some districts now consider vital . . . .”

551 U.S. at 862 (Justice Breyer, dissenting).

  • Nor could it.”

– 551 U.S. at 721 (Justice Roberts, writing for majority).

  • Nor is it likely to find such a case.”

551 U.S. at 863 (Justice Breyer, dissenting).

So be brave. And kick your sentences into action . . . .


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Cut the Clutter.

Posted: November 1st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Mission Critical Stuff, Plain English: Tips | No Comments »

Don’t use five words if three will do. Glue words, such as of, by, and or, usually mean that you can pare your sentence down. For example, The orders of the shipping department were produced by Widget Company should be rewritten as Widget Company produced its shipping department’s orders. (By and of are glue words that should come out.) The crux of the argument turns on should become The argument turns on. By virtue of his ownership of the land should be pared down to Because he owned the land. Don’t state by way of explanation. Just explain. Whether or not should be unknotted down to plain old whether. This point in time means now. An ongoing problem is just a plain old problem. A workable solution is simply a solution and a fellow colleague is just a colleague.

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Lose the Latin.

Posted: October 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Plain English: Tips | No Comments »

You are living in the modern world, not ancient Rome. If you would not use a word when speaking with a colleague in the hall, it is probably legalese. Therefore, resist any Latin word or phrase that can be written in modern English. And if you do use Latin or other legalese when you speak, your problems are far beyond anything that I can help you with.

Many commonly used phrases, such as “i.e.” and “e.g,” are Latin—and legalese. “E.g.” stands for “exempli gratia” and simply means “for example.” “I.e.” stands for “id est” and means “that is” or “in other words.” So why not just say “for example” or “that is?” But do use “e.g.,” rather than “for example,” in introductory signals that cite to cases, such as “See, e.g., Smith v. Jones.” (The Usage and Punctuation Guide in my book suggests alternatives to common legalese.)

And foreign phrases that are terms of art, such as “res ipsa loquitur,” “habeas corpus” or “res judicata,” are permissible . These phrases are considered common usage in legal writing, so they do not need to be italicized.

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Avoid phrases such as “It is clear that.”

Posted: October 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Plain English: Tips | No Comments »

Avoid throat-clearing sayings that begin with it is, such as it is clear that, it is likely that, it is mere speculation to suggest that or it is axiomatic that. Phrases such as there is a possibility that also don’t belong in your writing.

These phrases are pure clutter–word hiccups that slow the pace of your writing and add little value. If it goes without saying that the sun is shining, why are you saying it? If it is clear that is a cloudy day, why must you point it out? And many it is sentences are clichés, such as It is with a heavy heart (or great glee) that I announce . . .

If deleting the throat-clearing phrase would sacrifice some meaning, rephrase those sayings with an adverb. For example, rewrite It appears that Mr. Jones never received notice as Mr. Jones apparently never received notice. Similarly, there are many possibilities should be pared down to possibly. Only a few it is phrases are worth keeping, including the ubiquitous it is well established that or it is black letter law that. These two phrases add value, so the word hiccup will be forgiven.

After all, it is imperative that our writing must be clean and crisp.

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Keep most sentences short.

Posted: June 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Plain English: Tips | Tags: , | No Comments »

Short sentences are simple, clean—and often inspirational:

“Let there be light.”
-2 Corinthians. 4.6
“I have a dream.”
– Martin Luther King, August 28, 1963
“But let us begin.”
– John F. Kennedy, Jan. 20, 1961 (Inauguration speech)

Even if you are not seeding a universe or changing the course of history, you should keep your sentences short. Short, punchy sentences are a particularly powerful technique for beginning paragraphs. Even sentences within paragraphs should not exceed two or three lines.

But a long string of short sentences can sound choppy. Strive for rhythm and cadence. Vary your short sentences with an occasional longer sentence. Simply combine two short sentences in the middle of your paragraph to relieve the tedium of too many choppy sentences.

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