In addition to reading this section of the Guide and taking the quizzes at its conclusion, we urge you to visit William Strunk's Elements of Style, which has had a salutary effect on several generations of writers who have bought "the little book," and which is now, thanks to the Bartleby Project, online. (This online text is not exactly the same as the familiar text you'll find in bookstores, which was edited by E.B. White, but much of the really good stuff is the same.) We also recommend "The Perfectibility of Words," by Robert Hartwell Fiske, editor of the online journal Vocabula Review.
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Whether it's a two-word quip or a 200-word bear, a sentence must be a lean, thinking machine. Here are some notes toward efficiency and conciseness in writing.
Avoid saying the same thing twice.
A phrase that repeats itselflike "true fact," "twelve noon," "I saw it with my own eyes"is sometimes called a pleonasm.
Redundant phrases are bad habits just waiting to take control of your writing. Beware of the following.
|Redundancy||The Lean Version|
|3 am in the morning||3 am|
|a person who is honest||an honest person|
|a total of 14 birds||14 birds|
|biography of her life||biography|
|consensus of opinion||consensus|
|each and every||each|
|exactly the same||the same|
|frank and honest exchange||frank exchange or honest exchange|
|he/she is a person who . . .||he/she|
|in spite of the fact that||although|
|in the field of economics/law enforcement||in economics/law enforcement|
|in the event that||if|
|job functions||job or functions|
|one and the same||the same|
|period of four days||four days|
|personally, I think/feel||I think/feel|
|puzzling in nature||puzzling|
|shorter/longer in length||shorter/longer|
|small/large in size||small/large|
|square/round/rectangular in shape||square/round/rectangular|
|surrounded on all sides||surrounded|
|the future to come||the future|
|there is no doubt but that||no doubt|
|we are in receipt of||we have received|
A special breed of redundancy is proliferating in our modern world as we increasingly rely on abbreviations and acronyms in the busyness of our technology. Some people insist it is redundant to say "ATM machine" because ATM means Automated Teller Machine. They add that it is redundant to say "HIV virus" because HIV means Human Immunodeficiency Virus, "AIDS syndrome" because AIDS means Acquired ImmunoDeficiency Syndrome, "CPU unit" because CPU means Central Processing Unit. It sounds particularly silly when we come up with a plural such as "CPU units" Central Processing Unit units. It is perhaps too easy to get caught up in this, however. "CD disk" can be redundant, but nowadays the abbreviation CD can refer to a number of things, including the machine itself. Occasionally, an abbreviation like CD, ATM becomes more of an idea unto itself than a shortened version for a set of words, and the abbreviation ought to be allowed to act as modifier.
Be alert for clauses or phrases that can be pared to simpler, shorter constructions. The "which clause" can often be shortened to a simple adjective. (Be careful, however, not to lose some needed emphasis by over-pruning; the word "which," which is sometimes necessary [as it is in this sentence], is not evil.)
Phrases, too, can sometimes be trimmed, sometimes to a single word.
Avoid using words such as really, very, quite, extremely, severely when they are not necessary. It is probably enough to say that the salary increase is inadequate. Does saying that it is severely inadequate introduce anything more than a tone of hysteria? These words shouldn't be banished from your vocabulary, but they will be used to best effect when used sparingly.
This sounds like something a politician has to learn to avoid, but, no, an expletive construction is a common device that often robs a sentence of energy before it gets a chance to do its work. Expletive constructions begin with there is/are or it is.
Further information about expletive constructions is available on our page on The Verb "To Be".
Be on the lookout for important sounding phrases that add nothing to the meaning of a sentence. Such phrases quickly put a reader on guard that the writer is trading in puffery; worse, they put a reader to sleep.
Many but not all of these unnecessary phrases have been taken from Quick Access: Reference for Writers by Lynn Quitman Troyka. Simon & Schuster: New York. 1995. The examples, however, are our own. No political inferences should be drawn from these examples; they are merely models of form.
|all things considered||All things considered, Connecticut's woodlands are in better shape now than ever before.|
|as a matter of fact||As a matter of fact, there are more woodlands in Connecticut now than there were in 1898.|
|as far as I'm concerned||As far as I'm concerned, there is no need for further protection of woodlands.|
|at the present time||This is because there are fewer farmers at the present time.|
This is because there are fewer farmers now.
|because of the fact that||Woodlands have grown in area because of the fact that farmers have abandoned their fields.|
Woodlands have grown in area because farmers have abandoned their fields.
|by means of||Major forest areas are coming back by means of natural processes.|
Major forest areas are coming back through natural processes. (or naturally)
|by virtue of the fact that||Our woodlands are coming back by virtue of the fact that our economy has shifted its emphasis.|
Our woodlands are coming back
|due to the fact that||Due to the fact that their habitats are being restored, forest creatures are also re-establishing their population bases.|
|exists||The fear that exists among many people that we are losing our woodlands is uncalled for.|
|for all intents and purposes||The era in which we must aggressively defend our woodlands has, for all intents and purposes, passed.|
The era in which we must aggressively defend our woodlands has
|for the most part||For the most part, people's suspicions are based on a misunderstanding of the facts.|
|for the purpose of||Many woodlands, in fact, have been purchased for the purpose of creating public parks. |
Many woodlands, in fact, have been purchased
|have a tendency to||This policy has a tendency to isolate some communities.|
|in a manner of speaking||The policy has, in a manner of speaking, begun to Balkanize the more rural parts of our state.|
The policy has
|in a very real sense||In a very real sense, this policy works to the detriment of those it is supposed to help.|
|in my opinion||In my opinion, this wasteful policy ought to be revoked.|
|in the case of||In the case of this particular policy, citizens of northeast Connecticut became very upset.|
Citizens of northeast Connecticut became very upset about his policy.
|in the final analysis||In the final analysis, the state would have been better off without such a policy.|
|in the event that||In the event that enough people protest, it will probably be revoked.|
If enough people protest, it will probably be revoked.
|in the nature of||Something in the nature of a repeal may soon take place.|
|in the process of||Legislators are already in the process of reviewing the statutes.|
Legislators are already
|it seems that||It seems that they can't wait to get rid of this one.|
|manner||They have monitored the activities of conservationists in a cautious manner.|
They have cautiously monitored the activities of conservationists.
|the point I am trying to make||The point I am trying to make is that sometimes public policy doesn't accomplish what it set out to achieve.|
|type of||Legislators need to be more careful of the type of policy they propose.|
Legislators need to be more careful of the
|what I mean to say is||What I mean to say is that well intentioned lawmakers sometimes make fools of themselves.|
In his eminently readable Web site, "BANNED FOR LIFE," Tom Mangan has collected the "favorite" clichés of editors and journalism instructors from around the world. If you read too much of this at once, you'll stop talking.
A cliché is an expression that was probably, once upon a time, an original and brilliant way of saying something. Imagine being the first person to say something as clever as "She fell head over heels in love" or "She's cool as a cucumber." Sadly, though, such expressions eventually lose their luster and become trite and even annoying. Writers who indulge in tired language are not being respectful to their readers, and writers return the compliment by losing attention and going on to something else.
It is particularly galling when a writer or speaker relies on tired language to the point of creating a hodge-podge of mixed clichés and assorted vegetables. A mayor of Austin, Texas, once announced, to everyone's bewilderment, "I wanted all my ducks in a row, so if we did get into a posture, we could pretty much slam-dunk this thing and put it to bed."
Here is a list of trite expressions to look for in your writing and speaking. Create your own list of clichés by listening for them on radio talk-shows and casual conversation. Watch television ads and the headlines of sports columnists to find clichés that writers are playing with, adapting the meaning of a hackneyed expression until it turns into something clever (or, sometimes, not so clever). Click HERE for a handful of examples taken from the sports pages of The Hartford Courant.
We also recommend Brian Murphy's Big List of Clichés, for a truly exhausting (but fun) list of things to avoid saying.
at loose ends
babe in the woods
better late than never
brought back to reality
black as pitch
blind as a bat
bolt from the blue
busy as a bee/beaver
cool as a cucumber
cool, calm, and collected
crack of dawn
cry over spilt milk
dead as a doornail
don't count your chickens
dyed in the wool
easier said than done
easy as pie
face the music
flash in the pan
flat as a pancake
gentle as a lamb
go at it tooth and nail
good time was had by all
happy as a lark
head over heels
heavy as lead
horns of a dilemma
hour of need
keep a stiff upper lip
ladder of success
last but not least
looking a gift horse
in the mouth
needle in a haystack
pain in the _____
point with pride
pretty as a picture
put it in a nutshell
quick as a flash/wink
ripe old age
ruled the roost
sad but true
sadder but wiser
set the world on fire
sick as a dog
sigh of relief
slow as molasses
smart as a whip
spread like wildfire
straight as an arrow
straw that broke
the camel's back
strong as an ox
take the bull by the horns
thin as a rail
through thick and thin
tired but happy
to coin a phrase
to make a long story short
trial and error
tried and true
under the weather
white as a sheet
wise as an owl
work like a dog
worth its weight in gold
A euphemism is a word or phrase that substitutes for language the speaker or writer feels is too blunt or somehow offensive. When people die, we say, instead, that they have "passed away" or "met their maker" or "gone to sleep." And, at the silly extreme, a garbage collector is a sanitation engineer, a janitor is a custodial engineer. What the writer must guard against is the tendency of euphemisms not only to shield readers from harsh reality but also to obfuscate meaning and truth. The military is especially guilty of this: bombing raids become surgical air-strikes and armies become peace-keeping forces. Good writing tells the truth and tells it plain.
Gary B. Larson ("Garbl") maintains three helpful Web pages on concise writing: