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Keep the subject, verb, and object close together

The natural word order of an English sentence is subject-verb-object. This is how you first learned to write sentences, and it’s still the best way. When you put modifiers, phrases, or clauses between two or all three of these essential parts, you make it harder for the user to understand you.

Consider this long, convoluted sentence:

If any member of the board retires, the company, at the discretion of the board, and after notice from the chairman of the board to all the members of the board at least 30 days before executing this option, may buy, and the retiring member must sell, the member’s interest in the company.

In essence, the sentence says:

The company may buy a retiring member’s interest.

All the rest of the material modifies the basic idea, and should be moved to another sentence or at least to the end of the sentence. Many sentences in regulations include “if-then” provisions. Often, “if” defines who is covered by a provision. Start your sentence with the “if” provision, and then list the “then” provisions. If the provision is complex, and especially if there are several different “if” provisions, use a different sentence for every “if,” or consider using an if-then table.

Consider this complex regulatory provision:

We must receive your completed application form on or before the 15th day of the second month following the month you are reporting if you do not submit your application electronically or the 25th day of the second month following the month you are reporting if you submit your application electronically.

While still complex, the table is a significant improvement:

If you submit your form: We must receive it by:
By email the 25th of the second month following the month you are reporting
By mail or fax the 15th of the second month following the month you are reporting

For more information on tables see Use tables to make complex material easier to understand.

Sources

  • Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 23-4, 102.
  • Murawski, Thomas A., Writing Readable Regulations, 1999, Carolina Academic Press Durham, NC, pp. 77-78.
  • Office of the Federal Register, Document Drafting Handbook, 1998, MMR-6.
  • Securities and Exchange Commission, Plain English Handbook, 1998, Washington, DC, p. 32.