How to Write Concise, Active Sentences

By Mark Nichol

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One of the most valuable results of revising one’s writing (or inviting another person to do so) is leaner, more active prose. Review written content with the objectives of reducing the number of words in a sentence and using stronger, more direct syntax. (Accomplishing the latter occasionally increases rather than reduces sentence length, but attack the problems in that order.) The following sentences are prime candidates for this treatment; discussion and revisions explain the problem and offer solutions.

1. There are many factors at play that are contributing to this increase.

One of the most common culprits in verbose sentences is the expletive, an imposter subject consisting of some variation of there and a form of the verb “to be” (is, are, was, were, “has been” or “have been,” and so on) that masks the sentence’s true subject. It is easy to overlook such constructions—I did so just now. “Overlooking such verbosity is easy to do” is an improvement on the first part of that previous sentence (though no more concise than the original version), but the subject, the gerund overlooking, is still weak; the strongest subject is one in which an actor (not a thespian, but a person, place, or thing that performs an action or causes one to occur) appears, as in “Many writers overlook such verbosity.”

The example sentence is easily rendered more active and direct by omitting the weak expletive “there are”—thus giving “many factors” its rightful place as the sentence’s subject—and, as a bonus, the attendant but superfluous “that are” and changing the form of the verb: “Many factors at play contribute to this increase.”

2. If this package is worked out with the Senate’s blessing, there will likely be significant regulatory-relief provisions that are passed.

Note, however, that expletives don’t occur only at the head of a sentence. In this example, a subordinate clause precedes the main clause, which begins with the expletive “there will.” The expletive, again, is easily eliminated: “If this package is worked out with the Senate’s blessing, significant regulatory-relief provisions will likely be passed.” The “to be” verb has not been omitted, though, but merely replaces one (are) at the end of the sentence. If an actor is assigned to the sentence, the statement will be no more concise than before, but it will be stronger: “If this package is worked out with the Senate’s blessing, Congress will likely pass significant regulatory-relief provisions.”

3. There is a tendency for companies to hew too closely to the baseline scenarios provided by the agency.

Note, however, that when an expletive is omitted, the first noun to follow—in this case, tendency—is not necessarily the hidden true subject. This revision not only eliminates the expletive that begins the sentence but also condenses the wordy nominalization of tend and eliminates the passive—and wordy—phrase that ends the sentence: “Companies tend to hew too closely to the agency’s baseline scenarios.” (Nominalization is the transformation of a verb to a noun phrase, which in a misguided effort to make a sentence seem more authoritative usually succeeds only in making it stilted and verbose.)

4. The organization has a Cyber Risk Oversight Resource Center, which offers relevant questions for assessing the board’s cyber literacy.

Here, an element of an organization is introduced in a main clause, and a function of the entity is described in a subordinate clause. But no additional clause is necessary when the sentence is revised to eliminate the form of the verb “to be”; the entity is simply associated with the organization by using that word’s possessive form, eliminating the need for a nonessential clause: “The organization’s Cyber Risk Oversight Resource Center offers relevant questions for assessing the board’s cyber literacy.”

5. The possibility of allowing users to self-declare to designated authorities on a voluntary basis is still being considered.

The reference to possibility of enacting a policy is nearly redundant to the phrase indicating that the policy is being considered, so the sentence can be condensed somewhat by beginning with allowing: “Allowing users to voluntarily self-declare to designated authorities is still being considered.”

As advised earlier, however, when possible, replace a gerund with a true noun for a stronger sentence. If we know the identity of the entity considering the policy, we can employ this slightly longer but more direct revision: “The agency is still considering allowing users to voluntarily self-declare to designated authorities.”

6. The rising moon illuminated the blossoms. It was a magical atmosphere that lingered into the cool winter night.

These two sentences are easily combined into one by converting the first sentence to a subordinate clause connected to the second sentence, which now serves as the main clause: “As the rising moon illuminated the blossoms, the magical atmosphere lingered into the cool winter night.”

7. An organization is subject to compliance obligations and penalties for noncompliance. Noncompliance can result in fines of up to twenty million euros or 4 percent of the organization’s annual global revenue, whichever is greater.

In this revision, the first sentence serves as the main clause, and the second one is relegated to subordinate status—and note that the edited version eliminates the awkward repetition of noncompliance at the very end of one sentence and the very beginning of the next: “An organization is subject to compliance obligations and penalties for noncompliance, which can result in fines of up to twenty million euros or 4 percent of the organization’s annual global revenue, whichever is greater.”

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