Avoid Common Pitfalls
This resource will help you write clearly by eliminating unnecessary words and rearranging your phrases.
Contributors: Ryan Weber, Nick Hurm
Last Edited: 2013-02-25 10:28:45
1. Avoid overusing expletives at the beginning of sentences
Expletives are phrases of the form it + be-verb or there + be-verb. Such expressions can be rhetorically effective for emphasis in some situations, but overuse or unnecessary use of expletive constructions creates wordy prose. Take the following example: "It is imperative that we find a solution." The same meaning could be expressed with this more succinct wording: "We must find a solution." But using the expletive construction allows the writer to emphasize the urgency of the situation by placing the word imperative near the beginning of the sentence, so the version with the expletive may be preferable.
Still, you should generally avoid excessive or unnecessary use of expletives. The most common kind of unnecessary expletive construction involves an expletive followed by a noun and a relative clause beginning with that, which, or who. In most cases, concise sentences can be created by eliminating the expletive opening, making the noun the subject of the sentence, and eliminating the relative pronoun.
It is the governor who signs or vetoes bills.
The governor signs or vetoes bills.
There are four rules that should be observed: ...
Four rules should be observed:...
There was a big explosion, which shook the windows, and people ran into the street.
A big explosion shook the windows, and people ran into the street.
2. Avoid overusing noun forms of verbs
Use verbs when possible rather than noun forms known as nominalizations. Sentences with many nominalizations usually have forms of be as the main verbs. Using the action verbs disguised in nominalizations as the main verbs—instead of forms of be—can help to create engaging rather than dull prose.
The function of this department is the collection of accounts.
This department collects accounts.
The current focus of the medical profession is disease prevention.
The medical profession currently focuses on disease prevention.
3. Avoid unnecessary infinitive phrases
Some infinitive phrases can be converted into finite verbs or brief noun phrases. Making such changes also often results in the replacement of a be-verb with an action verb.
The duty of a clerk is to check all incoming mail and to record it.
A clerk checks and records all incoming mail.
A shortage of tellers at our branch office on Friday and Saturday during rush hours has caused customers to become dissatisfied with service.
A teller shortage at our branch office on Friday and Saturday during rush hours has caused customer dissatisfaction.
4. Avoid circumlocutions in favor of direct expressions
Circumlocutions are commonly used roundabout expressions that take several words to say what could be said more succinctly. We often overlook them because many such expressions are habitual figures of speech. In writing, though, they should be avoided since they add extra words without extra meaning. Of course, occasionally you may for rhetorical effect decide to use, say, an expletive construction instead of a more succinct expression. These guidelines should be taken as general recommendations, not absolute rules.
At this/that point in time...
In accordance with your request...
As you requested...
Below are some other words which may simplify lengthier circumlocutions.
- "because," "since," "why" =
- the reason for
- for the reason that
- owing/due to the fact that
- in light of the fact that
- considering the fact that
- on the grounds that
- this is why
- "when" =
- on the occasion of
- in a situation in which
- under circumstances in which
- "about" =
- as regards
- in reference to
- with regard to
- concerning the matter of
- where ________ is concerned
- "must," "should" =
- it is crucial that
- it is necessary that
- there is a need/necessity for
- it is important that
- cannot be avoided
- "can" =
- is able to
- has the opportunity to
- has the capacity for
- has the ability to
- "may," "might," "could" =
- it is possible that
- there is a chance that
- it could happen that
- the possibility exists for
It is possible that nothing will come of these preparations.
Nothing may come of these preparations.
She has the ability to influence the outcome.
She can influence the outcome.
It is necessary that we take a stand on this pressing issue.
We must take a stand on this pressing issue.