You may have experienced a scenario like this once in your life: while communicating with another person, be it in-person or indirectly like through email, you say something that rubs that person the wrong way even if you didn’t mean to offend them. Maybe it was the tone of your voice or what you said implied a different message that offended them.
In some occasions, though, it may be because of words or phrases added that are used wrong or are just inappropriate for the discussion. Take, for instance, the phrase “to be clear.” Although at face value it can be used to say that one is trying to clarify what is discussed, used in the wrong way, it can be rude to use it in certain contexts.
Here’s how you should use “to be clear” in both personal and indirect communication without offending anyone or coming off as rude.
Decoding “To Be Clear”
It’s unknown when the phrase started or if it was meant as an idiom (we wrote a previous article on idioms and how we often overlook a phrase to be an idiom because it is commonly used in conversations). Based on Google Books’ Ngram Viewer, though, the phrase “to be clear” has been frequently used in everyday language as early as 1701. In the Journal of the House of Laws records the transcripts of the Parliament of the time, and it records one member saying “the Words exprelling [sic] the Crime ought to be clear…”
The phrase “to be clear” can have two uses. The first one is used in a sentence like the one mentioned. It’s used without a comma and used to say something should be comprehensible or interpretable. It can be figuratively clear, such as to say something is interpretable, or literally clear, such as transparent or glassy.
For example, you can say “Please wipe the windows. I want them to be clear before the guests arrive.” You can also say “He needs to be clear when she gives instructions or he’ll confuse the contestants.” This second sentence isn’t offensive because you’re stating a fact. A person giving out instructions needs to be distinct and communicate effectively to avoid misdirecting those listening to them. However, it can be offensive to the “he” in the subject if you say it in a certain way. If the man is already giving out instructions or you learn that he’ll be the one to give out the instructions, if you say it with a doubtful or harsh tone, you’re implying that the man is incapable of speaking intelligibly and you’re doubting his ability to relay instructions.
The second way to use “to be clear” is as a phrase separated by a comma because you are trying to say you want to verify an idea. Here are some examples of similar forms of the phrase and how they’re used:
- To be perfectly clear, I’m not happy with your performance.
- Just so we’re all clear, no one should invite her to the party.
- To be clear, when the boss says she’ll think about it, she really means no.
- Just to be clear, you want me to deliver the pizza after 4 PM?
In all four examples, the speaker uses the phrase “to be clear” to explain that they are trying to verify that both they and the person or people they’re talking to are on the same page. An employee might think they’re due for a promotion, but really the employer thinks otherwise. A group of friends might agree not to invite a person, so one of them confirms no one is allowed to tell a certain person about their upcoming plans. Or when a pizza delivery service is given an odd request to deliver a pizza after a certain time and not before, they have to confirm that they understood the request right.
Using “To Be Clear” the Wrong Way
While using the phrase seems harmless enough and shouldn’t seem to offend anyone, but in some cases, that phrase is used in a rude or overly authoritative way.
- (Employee speaking to their employer) Just to be clear, do you want me to do my job or not?
- Just so we’re clear, let me rephrase what Mark just said.
- To be clear, I asked you to do this yesterday so I expected you to be done by now.
While some might think these sentences seem just as harmless as the previous sentences, these sentences are easy to misconstrue and be taken the wrong way by people you’re communicating with.
The first example shows an employee using the phrase with him employer. The phrase in itself isn’t disrespectful when talking to a superior at work, but the question is disrespectful because it’s a sarcastic question that implies the employer is giving stupid demands that hinders the employee from doing their job. The phrase adds additional insult because the employee is verifying if they understand the employer’s stupid demands.
The second sentence undermines Mark because it’s implied he was not a good speaker, thus was unable to get the message clearly to everyone listening. You’re also implying that you’re a much better speaker than Mark, which is something rude to say.
The third example belittles the person you’re speaking to because it seems like they weren’t capable of following instructions, thus they are the cause of your inconvenience. You’re verifying that you did your part, and are rudely stating that they didn’t.
How to Use “To Be Clear”
There’s no wrong way to use “to be clear” in a sentence if you’re trying to verify, but there is a wrong way to use it if you are trying to avoid being misinterpreted. For starters, be careful of the sentence you’re using. You’re most likely using the phrase because you want to verify what you or everyone knows about a certain topic, so it’s easy to sound like you’re calling someone confusing to talk to or incompetent. You don’t have to change the phrase, instead, you can try changing the rest of the sentence so it isn’t misconstrued.
|Just to be clear, do you want me to do my job or not?||Just to be clear, isn’t this outside my job description?|
|Just so we’re clear, let me rephrase what Mark just said.||Just so we’re clear, let’s go through this once more.|
|To be clear, I asked you to do this yesterday so I expected you to be done by now.
|To be clear, I expected this work to be done by now.|
Avoid sounding dismissive or using sarcasm when using this phrase, especially in professional settings. It’s easy to seem condescending when you use this phrase, especially when tensions are high and there’s no room for jokes.
Sarcasm is OK in casual settings (“Just to be clear, are we leaving now or what?” when your friends are taking a long time to get ready to leave for a trip), but when you’re dealing with colleagues, supervisors, and other people you aren’t close with, you need to be careful about what you say and the way you say it or else you may be misunderstood and seen as rude or condescending.
Can You Remove “To Be Clear” Altogether?
If the phrase is a dangerous one to use that risks miscommunication, wouldn’t it just be better to avoid the phrase in a professional setting? Not necessarily. Saying “to be clear” is still perfectly acceptable as long as you actually are trying to verify or get everyone on the same page.
In some instances, though, the phrase is used as a filler word in conversations and indirect communication and can be removed altogether. Examples of these include:
- I’d like to verify this, just so we’re all clear.
- To be clear, another way to put it is…
- (Speaking information released for the first time) Just so we’re clear, the party starts at eight.
The first sentence shows redundancy. If you’re verifying something, it already means you’re making something clear, so there’s no need to say “just so we’re all clear.” This can simply be dropped as it is a form of filler in the sentence.
The second example is another form of filler. One can simply drop the phrase and start their sentence with “another” because it’s implied that they’re already trying to make the topic clearer. In this case, it’s much better to show you’re making something clear than to tell someone what you’re doing.
The third example shows a person telling their friends that their party starts at eight. This is information they had not yet released, so the other friends don’t have any misleading information they need to verify from the speaker. You can simply say the party starts at eight, since you’re announcing it.
There are many other ways of using the phrase “to be clear,” as there are plenty of contexts where you can use it appropriately. But this phrase is tricky to use in a professional or formal setting because, when used a certain way, the person or people you’re talking to can find you rude or too aggressive.