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Home > Publications > Quill > Always be succinct


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Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Always be succinct

Paula LaRocque

What’s wrong with the following sentences?

• He saluted and surreptitiously wiped away the tears in his eyes when they raised the flag.

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

• He wouldn’t speak because of the tape recorder but nodded his head in affirmation when asked if he’d been paid.

• She was photographed after pressing charges, although by then her bruises had gone from deep purple in color to shades of green and yellow.

• Public transportation usage is increasing because of gas prices.

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

• Forensics tested various bodily fluids, including saliva from his mouth.

• The pols departed for another long session in the Capitol building.

• He had a wide grin on his face for much of the interview. Worse, he answered in an excited manner, often gesturing wildly with his hands.

• The store will be open until 12 midnight during the weekend.

• The agency has seen a new record in the number of ethics complaints regarding free gifts.

Each of these sentences is burdened with garden-variety redundancy and wordiness. Is that so bad? It is. Wordiness is a chief enemy of a clear, brief, bright, precise and pleasing writing style. The best writers try to make every word count. They use one strong word that illuminates their message rather than a handful of weaker words that obscure it. Any writer can stuff a sentence full of unnecessary vocabulary, but that practice is neither art nor commendable craft.

The good news is that cutting redundancy and wordiness is easy. Writers who want a polished, refined style carefully delete idle expression before they tackle editing’s more challenging tasks. That’s because editing concise and purposeful passages is easier than editing flabby passages.

Let’s edit the sentences above.

• He saluted and surreptitiously wiped away the tears in his eyes when they raised the flag. Strike “in his eyes.” Where else? Better: He saluted and surreptitiously wiped away tears when they raised the flag.

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

• He wouldn’t speak because of the tape recorder but nodded his head in affirmation when asked if he’d been paid. Strike “his head” and “in affirmation.” A nod always involves the head and always is an affirmation. (When responding negatively, we shake our heads.) Better: He wouldn’t speak because of the tape recorder but nodded when asked if he’d been paid.

• She was photographed after pressing charges, although by then her bruises had gone from deep purple in color to shades of green and yellow. Strike “deep”; purple is by definition a deep color. Strike “in color” and “shades of” — purple, green and yellow are by definition colors and shades. Better: She was photographed after pressing charges, although by then her bruises had gone from purple to green and yellow.

• Public transportation usage is increasing because of gas prices. “Usage,” when we mean “use,” has a gratuitous syllable. Better: Public transportation use is increasing because of gas prices.

• He’s not the only one who wants tests of teacher competency. “Competency” also has an unnecessary syllable. Better: He’s not the only one who wants tests of teacher competence.

• Forensics tested various bodily fluids, including saliva from his mouth. Strike “from his mouth” — saliva comes from nowhere else. Strike “bodily,” which is another demonstration of our unfortunate enchantment with unnecessary syllables. Isn’t fluid from the body just “body fluid”? Why an adverb instead of a noun? We don’t say “bloodily sample,” but blood sample. We don’t say “nasally drainage,” but nasal drainage. Likewise, we don’t say “bodily odor” or “bodily cavity” or “bodily clock.” We need the word body for such structures. Better: Forensics tested his saliva and other body fluids.

• The pols departed for another long session in the Capitol building. Strike “building.” The Capitol is the building, either in Washington, D.C., or in state capitals. Better: The pols departed for another long session in the Capitol.

• He had a wide grin on his face for much of the interview. Worse, he answered in an excited manner, often gesturing wildly with his hands. Where else would we find a grin but on a face? And how else would we gesture but with our hands? Also, words such as manner, way, style, degree, basis, etc., are often chaff. Better: He wore a wide grin for much of the interview, and, worse, answered excitedly and gestured wildly.

• The store will be open until 12 midnight during the weekend. Strike “12.” Midnight, like noon, is always at 12 o’clock.

• The agency has seen a new record in the number of ethics complaints regarding free gifts. Strike “new” and “free.” All records are new, or they are not records. And all gifts are free, or they are not gifts. Better: The agency has seen a record number of ethics complaints regarding gifts.

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