Country Report (Pro)


Omit Needless Words

There is a very famous book on the craft of writing called The Elements of Style, written by William Strunk and E.B. White. For more than 50 years, this book has been quoted and re-quoted by English professors who consider it to be akin to a "writer's bible." Whether such a high opinion of this book is warranted—I'll leave that up to you. But it is, without doubt, a highly respected book on the craft of writing.

In the The Elements of Style, Strunk and White enumerate 22 principles of good writing, and principle 17 is called "Omit Needless Words." (To "omit" something means to leave something out). It's a classic lesson, and very famous, so here it is, in its entirety.


17. Omit needless words.

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 sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Many expressions violate this principle:

Bad Better
The question as to whether whether (the question whether)
There is no doubt but that no doubt (doubtless)
used for fuel purposes used for fuel
he is a man who he
in a hasty manner hastily
it is a subject that this subject
Her story is a strange one Her story is strange
the reason why is that because

The fact that is an especially debilitating expression. It should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.

Bad Better
owing to the fact that since
in spite of the fact that though
call your attention to the fact that remind you
(notify you)
I was unaware of the fact that I was unaware that
(did not know)
the fact that he had not succeeded his failure
the fact that I had arrived my arrival

See also the words case, character, nature, in chapter IV. Who is, which was, and the like are often superfluous.

Bad Better
His cousin, who is a member of the same firm His cousin, a member of the same firm
Trafalgar, which was Nelson's last battle Trafalgar, Nelson's last battle

As the active voice is more concise than the passive, and a positive statement more concise than a negative one, many of the examples given under Rules 14 and 15 illustrate this rule as well.

[Rule 14 is "Use the active voice" and Rule 15 is "Put statements in positive form"].

A common way to fall into wordiness is to present a single complex idea, step by step, in a series of sentences that might to advantage be combined into one.

Bad Better
Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king. (51 words) Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland in his place. (26 words).

Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.