Omit Needless Words
Philosophy is hard, writing about philosophy doubly so. You start with an idea, imperfectly grasped. You try to express that idea in words. But your words fall short: they are loose, hedged, confusing. You add another sentence, hoping to clarify what you mean. Sometimes, that helps. Sometimes it just adds to the tangle.
There are many strategies for untangling your words. Here is one:
Rule 13. 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 his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
This is from Strunk’s The Elements of Style. I don’t like everything about The Elements of Style, but this advice is spot on: click on the link and go read the section from the book, and then come back here.
Getting Clear by Being Concise
I said that omitting needless words is a good strategy for untangling your words, and so untangling your own ideas. Let me walk through three examples, each taken from student essays, to show what I mean.
One objection I have to this definition is directed towards the statement that play is unproductive and a pure waste of time, money, energy, and skill.
Notice the wasted words with ‘one objection I have’. Don’t say ‘one dog I have is a corgi’ when you can say ‘my dog is a corgi’. Likewise,
My objection to this definition is directed towards the statement that…
(If you need to communicate that this is one of several objections, say ‘My first objection’. If you don’t need to communicate this, omit it.)
The words ‘to this definition’ are also not needed. It was clear in context what the writer was objecting to. So,
My objection is directed towards the statement that…
You can say that an objection is ‘directed towards’ something. But it is more concise to say that the objection is ‘to’ something:
My objection is to the statement that…
You say can what your objection is an objection to, but it is more direct (and uses fewer words) to just state that you object to it:
I object to the statement that…
We have reduced the 10-word phrase, One objection I have to this definition is directed towards, to the 3-word phrase, I object to. The resulting sentence is better in all ways:
I object to the statement that play is unproductive and a pure waste of time, money, energy, and skill.
Boxers for example are allowed to punch each other (and possibly knock the other unconscious) whereas on the street that would result in an arrest.
This sentence has a grammatical problem. It starts out as a claim about what boxers are allowed to do in the plural, but the parenthetical comment is about what one boxer (singular) may do to another. Let’s start omitting needless words, and see if, in the process, we can fix this problem too.
First, we can omit ‘for example’. When it is clear that you are giving an example, you do not need to say that you are giving an example:
Boxers are allowed to punch each other (and possibly knock the other unconscious) whereas on the street that would result in an arrest.
Second, we can replace ‘are allowed to’ with ‘may’, without loss of meaning, and so save two words:
Boxers may punch each other (and possibly knock the other unconscious) whereas on the street that would result in an arrest.
At this point, we might decide that the parenthetical comment is not needed. Does it add something to the example? Is it an important part of the point you are trying to make? If not, delete it:
Boxers may punch each other, whereas on the street that would result in an arrest.
But suppose we want to keep the parenthetical. We need to face the grammatical problem. Here is a rule of thumb: when in doubt, use a singular construction. Let’s try to rewrite the claim in the singular:
A boxer may punch another boxer (and possibly knock them unconscious), whereas on the street that would result in an arrest.
We haven’t saved any words, but we fixed the problem.
Can we omit any more words? We can replace ‘whereas’ with a semicolon:
A boxer may punch another boxer; on the street that would result in an arrest.
We can omit ‘an’ before arrest:
A boxer may punch another boxer; on the street, that would result in arrest.
When a sentence is loose and wordy, certain infelicities get hidden. When you omit needless words, those infelicities are easier to see. In this sentence, I see two:
- the sentence is setting up a contrast between what boxers may do in the ring and what they may do on the street. But the in the ring side of that contrast was not made explicit. So:
In the ring, a boxer may punch another boxer; on the street, that would result in arrest.
- To my ear, ‘this’ sounds better than ‘that’:
In the ring, a boxer may punch another boxer; on the street, this would result in arrest.
We have gone from 27 words to 18 words. We could save another word or two by rephrasing ‘this would result in arrest’.
In Las Vegas, if someone is caught cheating during a game, the charge for a first offense is a prison sentence of one to six years and a $10,000 fine. This one act during a game results in a life altering punishment.
This was meant to be part of an argument that actions that occur within games can have real-life effects.
Here are some initial thoughts:
- The charge is for cheating, not for being caught cheating, so we should be able to save at least one word there.
- The sentence is front-loaded with dependent clauses, ‘In Las Vegas’, and ‘if someone is caught cheating during a game’.
Here is a first revision:
The charge for cheating in Las Vegas is a prison sentence of one to six years and a $10,000 fine. This one act during a game results in a life altering punishment.
Admittedly, the revised first sentence omits some details: notably, that this is the charge for a first offense, and that the cheating occurs during a game. The second detail is covered by the second sentence. Is the first detail important or not?
The second sentence shares a construction with our previous example: ‘x results in y.’ We can save a word replacing it with ‘causes’. Better, we can rewrite the sentence using a stronger verb:
This one act during a game can alter your life.
More words can be omitted: do we really need to say that the sentence is a prison sentence? Is it important to emphasize that it is one act?
The charge for cheating in Las Vegas is a sentence of one to six years and a $10,000 fine. This act during a game can alter your life.
Maybe that goes to far: ‘This one act’ gets across the point better than ‘this act’. So let’s leave it in.
With fewer words, it is easier to think about word-choice. Would ‘act within a game’ or ‘act in a game’ be better than ‘during a game’? I think so:
The charge for cheating in Las Vegas is a sentence of one to six years and a $10,000 fine. This one act within a game can alter your life.
Is there more that we can do? Here is a more radical revision, which adds a few more words, but helps clarify the writer’s point:
Get caught cheating in Las Vegas, and you will serve one to six years in prison. So what you do within a game can affect your life outside the game.
Here is the idea:
- omit needless words.
Once you have done that, it will be easier to see exactly what you have said. Sometimes, exactly what you have said is exactly what you wanted to say. But often, seeing exactly what you said will help you see that you did not say exactly what you wanted to say, and help you see how to say it.