Friday, 31 March 2017

Needless Words

Why use one word when you can use five? To keep your readers from wanting to kill you, for a start.

Poster for 1915 film Les Vampires
Irma Vep regularly uses her vampiric wiles to ensnare voyeurs.

Strunk and White said it best: “Omit needless words.” But sadly, excess verbiage proliferates as aggressively as dandelions, especially in the offices of academia, business, and government. Most of us tend to expand our sentences when we want to sound formal or well-educated, inflating them with pointless words like so much hot air. We add length but lose clarity, and sometimes even sense. Our writing becomes the verbal equivalent of puffed rice, bland and insubstantial.

Compare the following sentences:

  • Due to the fact that dragon hatchlings may become irritable when hungry, it is advisable that the handler afford them opportunities to feed in a timely manner.
  • Because hunger makes dragon hatchlings irritable, handlers should let them feed on time.

The second is much more effective—clearer, stronger, and less likely to make readers bang their foreheads against their desks in frustration.

Illumination from Anjou Bible c. 1340
Because hunger makes dragon hatchlings irritable, handlers should let them feed on time.

Fortunately, many style guides list alternatives to the wordy phrases that like to creep into our writing. Below are suggestions for some of the most common offenders.

  • Irma Vep utilizes her vampiric wiles on a regular basis as a means of ensnaring voyeurs.
  • Irma Vep regularly uses her vampiric wiles to ensnare voyeurs.

  • In the event that the alarm beacon on the clock tower begins flashing, citizens are required to put on their gas masks in a calm manner and wear them for a period of no less than six weeks or until such time as radiation levels return to normal.
  • If the alarm beacon on the clock tower starts flashing, citizens must put on their gas masks calmly and wear them for at least six weeks or until radiation levels return to normal.

  • The fact is that we have no openings for ventriloquists at this point in time; however, we hope to expand our opportunities with regard to this area in the near future.
  • We have no openings for ventriloquists right now, but we hope to soon.

  • In the case of limbo competitions, flexibility is very likely to be the deciding factor.
  • Limbo competitors must be flexible to win.

Photo of women working at U.S. Steel, 1940
If the alarm beacon on the clock tower starts flashing, citizens must put on their gas masks calmly and wear them for at least six weeks or until radiation levels return to normal.

More than improving your prose, reducing wordiness forces you to decide what you really want to say rather than regurgitate a series of meaningless phrases. Unless, of course, you’re trying to conceal the fact that you have nothing to say, in which case, puff away! (But don’t expect anyone to be fooled.)

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