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Write Clearly with the Right Words

on January 7, 2016 by Proofreading Pal in Writing Guides facebook in twitter

English is a confusing language at the best of times because of its many linguistic influences over the years. It’s our job here at ProofreadingPal to uncover and fix such instances, and there are a few words particularly that we find ourselves changing over and over again to make language more precise.

Using “They/Them/Their” in the Singular

For a few reasons, it’s becoming increasingly popular for writers, particularly ones who are interested in gender identity, to use “they” in the singular sense.

  • The patient exhibited signs of trauma, but they couldn’t go to the new Star Wars
  • Google is proud of their new algorithm. They hope it will make searching for Star Wars

However much this may satisfy your political correctness, this is still grammatically incorrect and can create ambiguity in writing. For the first example, readers might be confused as to why the writer is using “they” to refer to one “patient.” They may think it’s a mistake and wonder whether there are several patients or just one. For the second example, Google is an organization, which is a singular entity. If writers refer to Google as “they,” this may again make readers confused. Is the writer referring to just Google or Google and its staff or to another entity or to people inside Google? Thus, to improve the preciseness of your writing, use:

  • The patient exhibited signs of trauma, but he or she couldn’t articulate the problem.
  • (Alternatively) The patient exhibited signs of trauma, but she couldn’t articulate the problem. (And then use “he” the next time.)
  • Google is proud of its new algorithm. It hopes it will make searching for Star Wars

Although it is becoming increasingly popular to use “they” in the singular sense—and it may very well be that it one day becomes acceptable usage—avoid it to improve the clarity of your language.

Using “While” to Show Contrast

It’s customary, particularly in academic writing, to use “while” to show contrast.

  • I like Star Wars, while my friend likes Star Trek.
  • While I like Star Wars, my friend likes Star Trek.

Both sentences above are not incorrect grammatically, but because of the more common use of “while” as a marker of time, by using it in the contrasting sense, you create a slight ambiguity of meaning for someone who is not reading closely. Most style guides recommend you don’t use “while” in this way. “While” should technically only be used for time.

  • I ate popcorn while watching the new Star Wars
  • I like Star Wars, while my friend likes Star Trek—nerd!

So rather than “while,” you should use two different words, depending on the context: although and whereas.

  • I like Star Wars, whereas my friend likes Star Trek.
  • Although I like Star Wars, my friend likes Star Trek (and is still a nerd).

Using “Since” and “As” for Causation

clarity1Probably the most common use of ambiguous language comes from using “since” and “as” for causation. It’s common to use these words for causation in speech. However, they can create ambiguity, particularly in writing because “since” and “as” both have alternative meanings. “Since,” like “while,” should be used for time, whereas “as” should be used for comparison, among other things. For example:

  • I’ve liked Star Wars since I was ten years old. (This can mean you liked it because you were a child or that you have liked it from the time you were a child.)
  • I can’t go see the new Star Wars movie, as you know I want to. (This can mean you know I can’t see the movie or that I can’t see it because you know I want to.)

Rather than “since” and “as,” most style guides recommend you solely use “because” for causation because it has no alternative meanings. Look at the clarity of:

  • Because I don’t have any money, I can’t go see the new Star Wars
  • I like Star Wars because it’s such a great movie.

Next time you feel like your writing isn’t as precise as it could be, consider the above and use words that are clear and unambiguous.

Nick S.

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