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The Word

Needless words

The case for a bit of verbal padding

By Jan Freeman
November 23, 2008
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"OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS," William Strunk famously urged students in his English classes at Cornell. In fact, said E.B. White - who was one of those students long before he became Strunk's coauthor - the professor said it over and over: "Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!"

The problem, for writers before Strunk and since, is identifying which words are needless. You don't have to look very hard, once you focus on the task, to find wordiness all around - even in the prose of those denouncing it. George Orwell, for instance, took 13 words to say what Strunk condensed into three: "If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out," he wrote in "Politics and the English Language." Aren't there some needless words in that sentence - an always and two outs, for starters?

The problem is, it's easy to go too far, once you start thinking of language as simply a tool for conveying facts. That's what happened to Mignon Fogarty, author of "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing," in a recent episode of her podcast.

A listener asked about the locution "I'm going to go ahead and e-mail you," objecting that the phrase go ahead and was "completely redundant." (The text of the podcast is available online.) Grammar Girl called the usage "wordiness," and she went on to confess some wordiness of her own.

"For some reason I always start e-mails with the phrase I just wanted to let you know that . . ." she said. "For example, I'll write, 'I just wanted to let you know that I love your podcast.' Ugh! Just say it: Dear Tod, I love your podcast. There's no need to sneak up on the sentence." Grammar Girl even worried that her use of past tense - "I just wanted to tell you" - was somehow ungrammatical.

Reassurance came swiftly from a commenter on the site. That's not wordiness, said Dave Wilton, host of the website Wordorigins.org and author of the book "Word Myths." In fact, that go ahead and is anything but empty verbiage: the words can "emphasize intentionality, emphasize futurity, and imply that the action is going to be taken without further notice or permission."

As for the function of I just wanted to, "the extra words announce that this is the entire purpose of the message and that there are no additional or ulterior motives," wrote Wilton. "Also, simply saying something like 'I love your podcast!' can be construed as abrupt and a tad impolite."

In fact, that past tense, sometimes called the attitudinal past, is a standard feature of polite English. It serves to distance the speaker's needs or intentions from the listener: "Did you want another?" is less demanding than "Do you," and "Could you help" more tentative than "Can you." It's not hard to increase the deference quotient of polite approaches, as Emily Post did in her advice to exhausted houseguests: They could retire before their hosts, she said, if they first asked, "I wonder whether you would mind very much if I went to bed?"

These rhetorical considerations apply to all language, not just polite discourse, which is why wordiness is so hard to define. You can find lists of phrases deemed wordy because they are sometimes superfluous - in order to, is able to, reach an agreement, make a decision, in terms of, there is, it is.

But those phrases sometimes serve to give the sentence the proper rhythm or emphasis. "This is a topic many parents would rather avoid," you might say, introducing a discussion of teen sex. The handbooks would have you rewrite it - "Many parents would rather avoid this topic" - but if the focus is teen sex, not parents' attitudes, the first sentence is the better one.

"Brevity is a great virtue," wrote the rhetorician Edwin Herbert Lewis in 1911, "yet it may be overestimated. The reader's mind must be permitted to eddy around the subject." Sometimes more words are merely padding, but sometimes they're the details that help a reader understand, the flourishes that give pleasure, the reassurances that you, the writer, are trustworthy. The goal of writing is not to deliver content efficiently, any more than the goal of dinner is to take in a specific ration of proteins and carbs.

Yes, brevity is a virtue, "but we must not make a fetish of it," wrote Lewis. "I have small sympathy with the people who worry because we eat up, eat down, drink up, drink down, and so on and so on. Must one never say great big dog because great equals big? Nay, it is a mark of man's overflowing vitality and sheer joy in emphasis to say great big dog."

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