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Place words carefully

Sloppy word placement can cause ambiguity. To reduce ambiguity:

  • Keep subjects and objects close to their verbs.
  • Put conditionals such as “only” or “always” and other modifiers next to the words they modify. Write “you are required to provide only the following,” not “you are only required to provide the following.”
  • Put long conditions after the main clause. Write “complete form 9-123 if you own more than 50 acres and cultivate grapes,” not “if you own more than 50 acres and cultivate grapes, complete form 9-123.”

In the left column below, it’s difficult to figure out which words relate to the forest products, which to the tribe, and which to the payments. The right column eliminates this problem by dividing the material into shorter sentences and pulling together the words about each provision.

Don’t say Say
Upon the request of an Indian tribe, the Secretary may provide that the purchaser of the forest products of such tribe, which are harvested under a timber sale contract, permit, or other harvest sale document, make advance deposits, or direct payments of the gross proceeds of such forest products, less any amounts segregated as forest management deductions pursuant to section 163.25, into accounts designated by such Indian tribe. If a tribe (you) asks us, we will require purchasers of your forest products to deposit their payment into an account that you designate. You can instruct us to deposit advance payments as well as direct payments into the account. We will withhold from the deposit any forest management deductions under section 163.25.

You will eliminate many potential sources of ambiguity by writing shorter sentences. The less complex the sentence, the clearer the meaning and less chance that ambiguity will creep in. Still, you must watch how you place words even in short sentences. In the example below, the audience may have to read the original statement several times to realize that we don’t mean, “If you really want to have a disability…”

Don’t say Say
If you are determined to have a disability, we will pay you the following: If we determine that you have a disability, we will pay you the following:


  • Garner, Bryan A., Garner's Modern American Usage, 2003, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, pp. 566-567.