Thursday, 21 July 2016

Unnecessary words


May I confess to a secret love. I love reading writing guides. Style guides. Guides to English usage.

It’s true.

My favourite is probably the guide to Modern Engish Usage known to its friends only as Fowler’s, to which Bill Bryson’s Troublesome Words is a useful complement ("Class, when do you use 'fewer' instead of 'less'?”) The best of them are pithy and incisive (I remember with affection Peikoff’s Principles of Grammar offering the example of subject and verb in a sentence: Governments coerce.”).

So a friend who knew my love gave me a copy of The Economist Style Guide (1986 edition), from which this guide to excising flatulence fell out (note: the emphases are in the original):

UNNECESSARY WORDS. Some words add nothing but length to your prose. Use adjectives to make your meaning more precise and be cautious of those you find yourself using to make it more emphatic. The word very is a case in point. If it occurs in a sentence you have written, try leaving it out and see whether the meaning is changed. The omens were good may have more force than The omens were very good.
    Avoid strike action (strike will do), cutbacks (cuts), track record (record), wilderness area (usually either a wilderness or a wild area), large-scale (big), the policymaking process (policymaking), sale events (sales), weather conditions (weather), etc. This time around just means This time, just as any time soon just means soon.
    Shoot off, or rather shoot, as many prepositions after verbs as possible. Thus people can meet rather than meet with; companies can be bought and sold rather than bought up and sold off; budgets can be cut rather than cut back; plots can be hatched but not hatched up; organisations should be headed by rather than headed up by chairmen, just as markets should be freed, rather than freed up. And children can be sent to bed rather than sent off to bed—though if they are to sit up they must first sit down. Pre-prepared just means prepared.
    The word community is usually unnecessary.  So the black community means blacks, the business community means business, the homosexual community means homosexuals, the international community, if it means anything, means other countries, aid agencies, or just occasionally, the family of nations. What the global community means is a mystery.
     Use words with care. A heart condition is usually a bad heart. Positive thoughts (held by long-suffering creditors, according to The Economist) presumably means optimism. Industrial action is usually industrial inaction, industrial disruption or strike. A substantially finished bridge is an unfinished bridge, an executive summary a summary and a role model a model, a major speech usually just a speech, a top politician or top priority is usually just a politician or a priority. Something with reliability problems probably does not work. If yours is a live audience, what would a dead one be like.
    This advice you are given free, or for nothing, but not for free.
In general, be concise. Try to be economical in your account or argument (“The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out”—Voltaire). Similarly, try to be economical with words. “As a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigour it will give to your style.” (Sydney Smith). Raymond Mortimer put it even more crisply when commenting about Susan Sontag: “Her journalism, like a diamond, will sparkle more if it is cut.”

No mention is made of either sea change or step change, but then neither are used by the Key Government any more either. So there’s that.

And here’s a useful exercise too: see if you can spot the paragraph that’s been dropped from the more recent edition – and ask yourself why. (Here’s a clue.) Feel free to drop us a line when you have it.



  1. I disagree with the examples. I wrote a long reason why and then the effing computer wiped it. So this time I'll just say that you would lose the nuances with most of the omissions, or would have to take time to rewrite the sentence to make it understandable with others. I support not including unnecessary text, but these examples don't really work.

  2. There is something in what he says, so if you try and attempt to keep your face out of off the Fouler's dictionary, you won't wind up with syntax so convoluted that it soon becomes the kind of English up with which we can not put.

  3. "Step change" grated from the first I heard it.

  4. I thought about the subtle meanings which can be lost in ruthless word efficiency,also.
    He said at the meeting "I want to die sober", and we assumed he wanted to remain sober till he died, but the next day he was dead, so he was making himself clear, but it was just the way he said it, without an accent on the die, but sober.


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