Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Brevity, the art of getting one's point across in as few words as possible, is not one of my strengths, but I'm working on it. William Strunk wrote the book on writing style (literally... it's called The Elements of Style) and always advised his students to "Omit needless words!"

I meet lots of people who could use this counsel.

I think people try to sound more important by using lots of big words. It doesn't work; they just sound awkward.

In an editing class I took a few years ago, we looked at examples of excess wordiness and practiced correcting it. One egregious phrase that stuck in my head from that exercise is "due to the fact that." Why is it so horrible? Because it means the same thing as "because." Any time you can replace five words with one, DO IT! I still cringe every time I read "due to the fact that..."

We don't find wordiness only in writing, but in speech too. I recently heard Dick Cheney give an interview on Laura Ingraham's radio show, in which he made many sins against brevity. Here are a few, followed by my comments:

"...legitimate policy differences, not meant or intended to be personal attacks..."
Really, Sir? They were neither meant nor intended that way? 

"...everybody's desire to want to end the conflict [in Iraq]..."
I wish we could all hope for a stronger inclination to strive for that desire.

"...what was going on in that part of the world at that period of time..."
Here, he used fifteen words when he only needed four: "what was happening there."

Mr. Cheney, I respect you and admire some of your accomplishments, but you're not impressing me with your verbal diarrhea. Jeff Boomhauer is better at getting to the point.

The problem is not just with using too many words, but sometimes too many syllables. I've recently heard the following from friends and coworkers:

  • "You're banded to the small desk!" Banded? First of all, the word you want is exiled, not banned. Secondly, it's just banned. You let an extra D sneak in there.
  • "We've had way too many incidentses lately." I can see how this one arose. It's a hybrid of incidents and instances. These are both valid words, but you can't put them together and expect intelligent listeners to take you seriously.
  • "I got all the names you asked for and the other data, and I collagated them." This is my favorite! Collagated? Isn't that a brand of toothpaste? You can use it to polish your saxomophone.

I could go on and on, but that would be ironic, something this blog is not meant or intended to be.


Love my blog but want more cowbell? Wish I would fall into an abyss, or at least throw my laptop in? Feel I should have chosen 12 pt. Arial instead of 14 pt. Verdana? Comment below! I’m not a mind reader.


  1. I agree completely. My biggest influence towards brevity is Hemingway. As a former reporter before becoming a novelist, he had a skill in his writing style of delivering beautifully descriptive passages that were very short.

    Whenever I find myself getting carried away with the two dollar words, I start carefully looking for the fifty cent ones to use instead.

    Some argue that the more complicated the point, the more big words are needed to express it, but I find that generally leads to dry oversized tomes, incomprehensible to all but a highly trained few.

  2. And who doesn't need more cowbell?!?

  3. My favorite quote (at times - I seem to also be afflicted with verbal diarrhea. Why use two words when fifteen will do nicely?) is by Thoreau; "Simplify, simplify!" Of course, I think it would have been simpler had he just said 'Simplify."

  4. I am a self-proclaimed rambler. Thankfully, I have not reached Faulkner status, but that could be because my life is not nearly as exciting as a dusty murder mystery.

  5. Yeah, Guapo, Hemingway had this skill mastered. He relied heavily on dialogue and was not afraid to break the rules (on run-on sentences, for instance). Often harshly criticized, he was so influential that someone once remarked, "there were two kinds of writers in the 20th century--those trying to sound like Hemingway, and those trying not to."

    Wayne, I like that one! Nothing wrong with repeating an important word for emphasis, and he still managed to be very brief. Here's E.B. White's account of Strunk lecturing at Cornell:
    "When he delivered his oration to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grabbed his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, 'Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!'"

    Debbie, when we've reached the status of Faulkner (or Hemingway), we'll have license to ramble as we wish. I'm obviously nowhere close. In your writing that I've seen, you don't seem guilty of excessive wordiness.

  6. when we've reached the status of Faulkner (or Hemingway), we'll have license to ramble as we wish
    I'd rather reach the status of Hefner and lounge around in my pajamas all day...