When people talk about writing clearly, they tend to focus a lot on grammar. In many ways, this focus on grammar makes sense: writing grammatically is usually a big part of making sure that a sentence is easy to understand. However, grammar isn’t the only thing you need to think about when you’re trying to write clearly. Why? Because a grammatically correct sentence isn’t necessarily a clear sentence. Let’s take a look at the following example:
Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
Believe it or not, this sentence is grammatically correct. “Buffalo” can refer to the animal, the U.S. state, or a verb that means “to bully or intimidate.” If you map these meanings onto the words in the sentence, you’ll find that it says the following: Bison from Buffalo, which bison from Buffalo bully, themselves bully bison from Buffalo. If you’ve never seen this sentence before, though, it’s unlikely that you would have been able to figure this out easily. After all, most people don’t even know that the word “buffalo” can be used as a verb.
Now, you may be thinking that the buffalo example is a bit of an extreme one, and I’ll give that to you. It’s definitely true that most sentences in English aren’t composed of one word used over and over again. But we don’t need sentences as baffling as the buffalo sentence to see why making sentences grammatical doesn’t guarantee clarity. Let’s take a look at this sentence:
The horse raced past the barn fell.
Did you have to reread this sentence at least once before you were able to figure out what it means? Most people do if they haven’t seen it before. This sentence is what we call a garden path sentence: the structure of the sentence makes us interpret the sentence incorrectly and go down the wrong “garden path” at first. The first time we read the sentence, we interpret “the horse” as the subject of the sentence, “raced” as the main verb, and “past the barn” as a phrase that describes where the horse raced. When we get to the verb “fell,” though, it becomes clear that this way of interpreting the sentence isn’t correct. Eventually, after reading the sentence a few times, we realize that “the horse raced past the barn” is the subject of the sentence (“raced past the barn” describes which horse we’re talking about) and “fell” is the main verb in the sentence.
As you can see, then, grammatically correct sentences aren’t necessarily clear sentences. To write clearly, you not only need to have a good grasp of grammar, but you also need to know how to select appropriate words based on what you’re writing about and how to combine these words into cohesive sentences and paragraphs. If you’re looking for some tips to help you write clearly, check out the 12 tips in our ebook “How to Write Clearly.”
Have any lingering questions about writing clearly vs. writing grammatically? Leave us a note in our comments section below and we’ll do our best to incorporate your questions into one of our upcoming posts.
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