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Friday, February 2, 2007
Wordiness quiz

Do you think you always write as tight as possible?

Commentary by Paula LaRocque

What’s wrong with the following sentences? Each suffers the same common writing flaw. Can you spot it?

1. He saluted and surreptitiously wiped away the tears in his eyes.

2. The path narrowed in width as it approached the bridge.

3. He wouldn’t speak because the recorder was on, but he nodded his head in affirmation when they asked him if he’d been paid.

4. She was photographed after the examination, although by then her bruises had gone from a deep purple in color to paler shades of green and yellow.

5. He shrugged his shoulders and said that if our past experience in Vietnam had taught us anything, it should have taught us not to get into a war we could never win.

6. He’s not the only one who wants tests of teacher competency.

7. The progress of economic development in Iraq has run into the many obstacles blocking its path.

Each of those sentences is marred by wordiness — gratuitous expression that takes up space but adds no meaning. In the first sentence, for example — “He saluted and surreptitiously wiped away the tears in his eyes.” — the last three words are gratuitous. Tears always flow from the eyes, so it would be tighter and more polished to write: “He saluted and surreptitiously wiped away tears.”

Below are the remaining sentences and what the careful writer or editor might do (at the very least) to fix them.

2. The path narrowed in width as it approached the bridge. Whatever “narrows” decreases in width, just as whatever “widens” increases in width. Revised: The path narrowed as it approached the bridge.

3. He wouldn’t speak because the recorder was on, but he nodded his head in affirmation when they asked him if he’d been paid. “Nodded” should stand alone. We always nod our heads, and it’s always “in affirmation.” (We shake our heads when we mean “No.”) Revised: He wouldn’t speak because the recorder was on but nodded when asked if he’d been paid.

4. She was photographed after the examination, although by then her bruises had gone from a deep purple in color to paler shades of green and yellow. Whatever is purple is always purple “in color.” Delete “paler shades of” for the same reason. Unless there’s some reason to describe the colors of the fading bruises, it’s better to capture the idea in one suggestive word. Revised: She was photographed after the examination, although by then her bruises were fading.

5. He shrugged his shoulders and said that if our past experience in Vietnam had taught us anything, it should have taught us not to get into a war we could never win. What would we shrug if not our shoulders? Experience is always “past.” “Avoid” is a quicker and more emphatic way of saying “not to get into,” and “unwinnable” is a quicker and more emphatic way of saying “we could never win.” (When paraphrasing, we can and should rephrase for grace, accuracy and precision.) Revised: He shrugged and said that if our Vietnam experience had taught us anything, it should have taught us to avoid an unwinnable war.

6. He’s not the only one who wants tests of teacher competency. Avoid the pretentious practice of tacking meaningless syllables onto words — “competency,” for example, instead of “competence.” Revised: He’s not the only one who wants tests of teacher competence.

7. The progress of economic development in Iraq has run into the many obstacles blocking its path. That’s what obstacles do — block. And it’s the economic development that’s blocked; we can scrap the gratuitous “progress of.” Revised: Iraq’s economic development has run into many obstacles.

Wordiness is the most common problem in any kind of writing, and the chief enemy of a clear, brief, bright style. Media writers cannot do better than to follow the example of the most careful and memorable communicators: Make every word count.

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