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Opinion

A Word, Please: Avoid these writing pitfalls that can confuse readers

The Oxford English Dictionary
Writing issues such as unclear antecedents and abbreviations in parentheses can cause problems for readers.
(File photo)

One of my greatest weaknesses in life is one of my greatest strengths as an editor: I’m easily confused. If I had a nickel for every time I said, “Wait, what?” while reading an article, I’d have a sum easily calculated by someone less easily confused.

My innate talent for dazed disorientation allows me to serve as the lowest-common-denominator reader. The floor. The “If I get it, everyone gets it” reader.

So I know a thing or two about the writing habits that confuse people. Here are some pitfalls to avoid if you want everyone, even me, to understand your writing.

Unclear antecedents. Recently, presidential candidate Andrew Yang tweeted, “Parents should try and keep their kids at home if they are sick. Otherwise everyone gets it.” Bloomberg reporter and Georgetown journalism instructor Ryan Teague Beckwith replied, “Is that second sentence a threat?”

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Yang’s writing mistake is called an unclear antecedent. That means it’s not clear what his “it” in “everyone gets it” refers to.

True, few unclear antecedents are so bad they could get you a restraining order against a presidential candidate. But milder examples crop up everywhere. Take a sentence like “Steve and Bob were talking when he got the call.” Who got the call? The antecedent for the pronoun “he” could be Steve or Bob. We don’t know.

To avoid this error, examine all your pronouns to make sure it’s clear which noun each refers to.

Abbreviations in parentheses. As the president and sole member of the Assn. of People Who Hate Initialisms Inserted in Parentheses in the Middle of a Sentence, I can guarantee that by this point in my sentence you can’t recall what “APWHIIPMS” stands for.

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Even if I’d tried to force the lesson by inserting “(APWHIIPMS)” immediately after the association name, you wouldn’t have committed it to memory on the spot. It takes repeated exposure for a reader to develop a strong association with a set of initials like FBI or NAFTA.

If you demand your reader learn a new initialism on the spot and then you use it through the rest of your written work, she will have a much harder time following you. Use familiar words instead. In this case, “the association” or “the extremist group” would suffice.

Needless words. The more streamlined your sentence, the clearer it is which words are important.

Compare a sentence like, “It is true that the mere act of getting a flu shot represents an activity demonstrably capable of promoting individual and public health” to “Flu shots help people stay healthy.”

Sometimes it’s hard to let go of extra words because they contain seemingly important information. For example, in “Flu shots help people and populations stay healthy,” “populations” adds a new dimension of meaning to the sentence. But that meaning was already clear in the shorter sentence.

Abuse of dashes and semicolons. Em dashes — long dashes like these — and semicolons let you cobble together long sentences from short ones. But why would you want to? Bite-size sentences are more easily digestible. Avoid any dash that serves to just join multiple clauses into a single longer unit — this sentence is an example of a dash-spliced sentence that should have been broken in two.

Avoid semicolons whenever possible, especially when they join whole clauses that could stand on their own as sentences. If possible, take out the semicolon or dash and break the sentence in two.

Vague nouns. When writing, you often have a choice between vague nouns like “items” and specific nouns like “silver bullets used to hunt werewolves.” Do I need to tell you which better helps this dizzy reader gain a sensory grasp on what you’re saying?

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Always look for the most specific noun you can find. If you have a choice between “people” and “elected officials,” go with “elected officials.” If you have a choice between “elected officials” and “senators,” choose “senators.”

The more specific your noun, the easier it is for folks like me to connect it to something real, tangible and relatable.

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