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Joe Williams's two easy steps to clear writing

The Monitor's language columnist discovers a helpful book on style.

By Ruth Walker / May 5, 2009



Do you ever find that when you page through a book you're not yet committed to reading, you keep returning to some of the same pages again and again?

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So it has been with my latest new "book friend." As I paged through "Style: Toward Clarity and Grace," by Joseph M. Williams, I found myself continually coming back to page 21, on which he presents The First Two Principles of Clear Writing.

"Readers are likely to feel that they are reading prose that is clear and direct when

(1) the subjects of the sentences name the cast of characters, and

(2) the verbs that go with those subjects name the crucial actions those characters are part of."

Hmm, this is the page I need to read. Williams puts his finger on an ideal of alignment between language and the reality it purports to describe. In clear writing, the grammatical subjects of the sentences tend to be subjects (in a conceptual sense) of the piece as a whole. And the verbs of the sentences align with the actions of the piece as a whole.

To add a third step: The syntax of the sentences – the intelligent use of ordering words like "because," "if," and "although" – mirrors the logic of the facts. "Because the economy is down, gas prices have fallen."

This ideal sounds obvious, but anyone who handles copy knows that it's often honored in the breach. Williams gives a string of examples from which the "real" actions emerge but gradually from the blather:

"There has been effective staff information dissemination control on the part of the Secretary."

"The Secretary has exercised effective staff information dissemination control."

"The Secretary has effectively controlled staff information dissemination."

"The Secretary has effectively controlled how his staff disseminates information."

"The crucial actions," he writes, "aren't be or exercise, but control and disseminate."

I would have taken it one better. Disseminate has behind it a lovely metaphor of sowing the good seed hither and yon. But if the context is a "Secretary" with a capital "s" – a government official rather than an administrative assistant – and information is something to be controlled, it makes more sense to say, "The Secretary has effectively controlled the flow of information from his staff."

Williams's book came out in 1990. I learned about it from a column by Linda Lowenthal in the newsletter Copyediting. She wrote that he "believed that writing should tell a story, even if the story was about abstract concepts."

He uses the term nominalizations for those nouns derived from verbs or adjectives. Note how, in the "Secretary" examples, revision excavates action verbs from abstract nouns. And sometimes as we excavate, we identify nouns that need to be supplied. For example: "In the last sentence of the Gettysburg Address there is a rallying cry for the continuation of the struggle." This sentence has a population of zero.

Here's Williams's revision: "In the last sentence of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln rallied his audience to continue the struggle against the South."

As spring spreads across the earth, even here in New England, let us go forth and excavate our verbs so that we know where the action really is in our sentences. And let us align the logic of our grammar, as best we can, with that of the real world.

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