Syntax: The Arrangement of Words

Want to write effective procedures and work instructions? Then focus on these writing concepts:

  • Syntax: the arrangement of words
  • Vocabulary: the choice of words
  • Complexity: the level of detail
  • Numbers: the presentation of numerical information
  • Format: the way a document looks
  • Style: conversational and emphasis methods
  • Organization: the grouping of process information
  • Conditions: the decision criteria
  • Lists: related items, possibly in sequence
  • Alerts: For warnings, cautions, and notes

This article covers Syntax: putting words together in phrases and sentences that are easily and correctly read.

Grammar Rules

Follow the rules of accepted grammar to avoid misunderstandings. Even if the grammar errors do not confuse the reader, they may reduce your credibility. For example, subjects and verbs must agree in number (“the audits are complete” and “the audit is complete”).
Another error is the intentional omission of articles (a, an, the). Articles indicate if a noun is meant in a general or specific sense. For example, “the meeting is attended by the supervisors of the process area” indicates all the supervisors attend the meeting. However, “the meeting is attended by supervisors of the process area” may indicate some supervisors attend the meeting.

Concise Writing

Decide what you want to say, and say it in as few words as possible. Remove every word, phrase, or sentence that can be discarded without sacrificing clarity or violating any grammar rules. Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826), the 3rd U.S. President and drafter of the Declaration of Independence, said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”
Active Sentences
An active sentence is one that shows the subject of the sentence acting. For example, a procedure should actively state, “the operator removes the tape”. A passive sentence is constructed to have the subject acted upon. For example, “the tape is removed by the operator.”

Use active sentences, not passive sentences. For example, a work instruction would actively state, “open the valve”, not passively state, “the valve is opened”.

Positive Statements

Write instructions as positive statements, for example, “ensure the switch is closed”. Avoid negative statements. For example, “ensure the switch is not open” may confuse the reader.
Short Sentences
Break long sentences into several short sentences containing fewer actions.
Punctuation Usage

Use punctuation to aid in understanding, such as, commas to separate items in a list. Use a colon to indicate a list is to follow. Use semicolons to separate items in a list that contain internal commas. Use apostrophes to indicate possession, not to make a word plural.
Microsoft Word

Although aware of spell checking, you may not be aware that Word can analyze document grammar and readability. Click onOptions in the Tools menu and select the Spelling and Grammar tab. Select the Check Grammar With Spelling box and the Show Readability Statistics box.

The grammar function can verify subject-verb agreement, check for extra spaces, and identify missing punctuation or capitalization. It also spots passive sentences (e.g., “the document is approved by the manager”), which should be rewritten as an active sentence (“the manager approves the document”).

The document statistics include a Reading Ease index and a reading Grade Level. Both readability scores are based on the average number of syllables per word and the number of words per sentence. The Reading Ease score rates text on a 100-point scale; the higher the score, the easier it is to understand the document. For most documents, aim for a score of approximately 60 to 70. The Grade Level score rates text on a grade-school level. For example, a score of 8.0 means that an eighth grader can understand the document. For most documents, aim for a score of approximately 7.0 to 8.0.