A Clear Sentence

Posted: June 11, 2009 in How To
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“A clear sentence is no accident,” wrote William Zinsser in On Writing Well. We can’t write clearly unless we understand exactly what point we’re trying to get across. Take the sentence, “The dog ate the food.” That seems clear enough. But compare it to this: “The German Shepherd snapped up the scraps of rabbit meat his master tossed him over the rugged table.” That sentence tells me that the writer has a clearer grasp of what he’s trying to convey.

We make it hard for our audience when we use general terminology like “dog” or even “eternal life.” As much as possible, try to avoid using religious phrases such as “born again,” “spiritual life,” and so on. (In the “Words in Context” chapter of A Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, by Hudson and Townsend, you’ll find a long list of Christian vocabulary phrases to avoid.) These religious clichés are often used as a substitute for really thinking it through to the core idea.

One problem with religious terminology is that such words frequently have more than one meaning. What do you mean by “eternal life”? If you mean to live forever, just say so. If you mean something else, such as knowing God (John 17:3) you’ll need to spell it out. Compounding the problem is that the same religious terminology will mean different things to different people, especially if they come from a different religious culture, denomination, or even country from you.

Religious terms have complex ramifications. When we just spell out the meaning without the terminology, we can be clear. For example: “Jesus saves us from sin.” That sums up the thought in a nutshell, doesn’t it? However, sin is a many-splendored thing. What aspect of sin are we talking about? Deliverance from @#!*% ? Then say so: “Because we have sinned, we must be thrown into the Lake of Fire to burn forever. Thankfully, Jesus came to save us from this penalty of sin by bearing it for us.” That is a bit clearer, isn’t it? This kind of thinking comes only after one has a theological grasp of the topic. From what I’ve seen in several online Christian forums, quite a few believers use such general terminology when attempting to make their points, and end up putting a half nelson on the conversation.

Maybe we did not mean to talk about punishment regarding sin. Maybe we meant to talk about being a slave of sin. We can put it like this: “Before we gave our lives to Jesus, we were compelled to follow the urgings within, without a thought of following God. Jesus saves us from this inward compulsion by offering Himself as a substitute Master over us. Now we may submit to Jesus instead of to sin.”

Perhaps we meant that we are no longer corrupted by sin. Let’s say so: “Scripture says that God formed us into His image, such that we share His aspects of love, obedience, faithfulness, and may other traits. However, sin has tainted these aspects with varying degrees of selfishness. Jesus came to change us into a people who reflect God’s likeness more faithfully.”

Sin has many ramifications, so it’s important to nail down what you are trying to say and to construct your sentence so it removes ambiguity. (I just used the clichéd phrase, “nail down.” That’s lazy thinking. I used it here because it’s past my bedtime. I could do better.)

You don’t want your audience to scratch their heads as they try to figure out what you meant to say. (That last sentence is a bit long. Let’s recast it in a positive light: “You want your audience to get it right the first time.”) A clear sentence is no accident. It flows from a mind which has a nuanced grasp of vocabulary and theology.


Use good sense when following the above tips. Not every sentence needs to be full of detail. Consider the following question and answer exchange:

“What did the dog do when he saw the food?”
“The dog ate the food.”

We couldn’t state the answer any simpler than that. Context is everything.

  1. Ken Rolph says:

    Outside of Christian circles the word sin means something to do with sex. I wouldn’t use the word sin at all.

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