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Grammar and Clarity: Abstract Subjects

Grammar and Clarity: Abstract Subjects
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Imagine you are giving a presentation or writing a letter. You have done your research and organized your main points. You have checked your grammar and vocabulary to make sure everything is correct.

But something is missing. A final step that is just as important – if not more important. What is it?

A check for clarity.

Clarity – the quality of being easily understood – will be the subject of today’s report.

You will learn about the difference between clarity and grammar. You will also learn one of the best ways to check your presentation or writing for clarity.

Difference between clarity and grammar

Clarity and grammar are two closely related issues. We can explore the difference between them by making a comparison to metalworking.

Imagine you are a skilled metalworker who is making a high-quality tool such as a chef’s knife. First, you collect raw materials for the tool. Then, you follow the exact order of actions to put them in high and cool temperatures, and so on, to make a knife.

Vocabulary is like the raw materials – such as iron, steel, or other metal mixtures -- that go into making the tool.

Grammar – putting words together in certain ways – is like putting raw materials together in an exact order to make a knife.

Still, to make a high-quality knife, you need polishing and sharpening to make it look beautiful and cut smoothly. In presentation and writing, that is clarity!

What can you do?

Remember that statements can be grammatically correct but unclear. And statements that are somewhat clear can become very clear.

You can check for clarity in different ways. Start by double-checking sentences that begin with an abstract subject. Abstract subjects do not easily answer the following question: Who is doing something?

Consider this example, which comes from Nora Bacon’s The Well-Crafted Sentence.

The phenomenon of “boomerang children,” young adults who return to live with their parents after graduating from college, is an occurrence faced by many families today.

The sentence is grammatically correct but could be clearer. Why? The subject is “the phenomenon,” as in “the phenomenon of boomerang children.”

This sentence does not have a clear actor – a person or thing that is doing something.

Bacon says this sentence is better:

Many families face the phenomenon of “boomerang children,” young adults who return to live with their parents after graduating from college.

The subject of this sentence is “many families.” The action is “face” – meaning to deal with something in a direct way.


Let’s take some time to work with this idea. Imagine you see or hear the following sentence:

With the growing use of Slack in business situations, the pros and cons of the technology should be considered by the conference’s speakers.

How would you change this sentence into something that is polished and clear?

Can you identify the subject of the sentence? Do you think a different word or expression would work better in the subject position?

Closing thoughts

At first, you might find it difficult to look back on your work and check for clarity. You might need to make many changes. But that is exactly what expert writers and speakers do. They almost never present or publish something without careful checking!

Remember: language is a kind of skill. Skills take time and hard work to develop. But with patience and practice, you, too, can become an expert.

I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

chef – n. a professional cook who usually is in charge of a kitchen in a restaurant

polish – v. to make (something) smooth and shiny by rubbing it

abstract – adj. relating to or involving general ideas or qualities rather than specific people, objects, or actions

phenomenon – n. as an interesting fact or event) that can be observed and studied and that typically is unusual or difficult to understand or explain fully

boomerang – n. : a curved, flat, wooden tool that can be thrown in such a way that it returns to the thrower

occurrence -- n. something that happens

pros and cons expression - reasons to do something (pros) and reasons to not do something (cons); an argument for something (pros) and an argument against something (cons)


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