Take a quick look at the following sentences. Can you see what the three of them have in common?
- The troops fired into crowds protesting the return of the religious leader.
- John and Bob were in the coffee room when Bill Smith and Art Jones from accounting walked in. Words were exchanged, and the two wanted to argue about the hiring policy decision.
- Army helicopter pilots reported seeing steam plumes venting from near the top of the smaller mountain last week, but they disappeared shortly after the observation.
Whatever else these sentences may have in common, none of them tells the reader who did what. Take another look.
In sentence 1, who was protesting the return of the religious leader? Was it the troops who were protesting? Was it the crowds? And in sentence 2, who was it who wanted to argue? And how about sentence 3?
Creating confusion is easy to do when the writer knows so much about the subject that it all seems clear at first glance. So now look at sentence 1. How can you make it perfectly clear who was doing the protesting?
Perhaps you said something like.
“The troops, who were protesting the return of the religious leader, fired into the crowds.”
Or, if it had been the other way around, perhaps something like,
“The troops fired into the crowds, who were protesting the return of the religious leader.”
And how about sentence 2. How could you make it clear which two wanted to argue?:
This one is relatively easy, right? All you need to do is substitute the names of the would-be arguers for “the two.” So fixes are not always that complicated. The hard part is to recognize when what you have written is not as clear to the reader as it was to you when you wrote it.
And now for sentence 3, who was it who disappeared?:
This one is probably the most common source of confusion created by the writer. Is “they” the pilots (oh no!) or the plumes? This sort of confusion is also the easiest to spot when you proofread your writing before you send it. Just look for words like “they,” “he,” “she,” “we,” “it.” Then substitute the name or description for that word.
Fixing this sort of confusion – who did what? – can be relatively easy. The trick is to be aware of, and to recognize the sentences that will be confusing to the reader. Then fix them.
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