Wordy, Wordy, Wordy

Good writers and conversationalists aim for the crisp and clear, the brief and boiled-down. Too often, however, prose and speech are freighted with wordiness  – to wit, words that have no reason whatsoever to be there.

There may be no better example than at this point in time. When the word point refers to a time interval or (in the words of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary) “a particular step, stage, or degree in development,” it does the job all by itself. In a sentence on the order of  “At this point, the councilman plans to attend only one of the Town Hall meetings,” could the word be misconstrued as the point of a needle or a tapering piece of land jutting into a body of water? Of course not. In most cases, all a simple declarative sentence gains with the addition of two needless words (in and time) is clutter.

Here are seven more examples of wordiness, sometimes called “wretched excess” by linguists.

  • very unique  Unique means one-of-a-kind, so it’s either unique or not – period, full stop.
  • I, personally   You needn’t explain that it’s you when saying I.
  • in order to  Strike the first two words.
  • any and all   A simple all will do in all cases.
  • as to how  As to adds nothing useful, so lose it.
  • whether or not   Not not needed. Nor or.

Double Trouble

Some tacked-on words produce redundancies, also called tautologies. For instance, a warning is a notice given beforehand, so advance warning is a redundancy, a tautology, a repetitive term. The same is true of …

  • final conclusion
  • basic fundamentals
  • each and every 
  • meet together*
  • consensus of opinion

Then there’s the odd idea that words somehow sound more important if they’re part of a pair. In the 1970s, the trend toward adding situation to perfectly adequate words like crisis, siege, and riot (“A local bobby said he feared a riot situation could arise in Chippenham”) led the British satirical magazine Private Eye to launch a column called Situation Corner, which mocked examples taken from some of the most prominent UK newspapers and magazines.) A current example on this side of the media pond? The increasingly (and unfortunately) seen and heard active shooter situation. Uh, what else but a situation could it be when a firearmed somebody puts people in the crosshairs and pulls the trigger?

* “Together” redundancies include mix together, group together, and blend together.

3 Responses to Wordy, Wordy, Wordy

  • Erik Kowal says:

    I think we are agreed that these redundancies are generally ugly, and can even be obfuscatory.

    But they may have a certain rhetorical value to a speaker who wishes to emphasize a particular point. For instance, he can employ “I invite each and every one of you to oppose this dastardly scheme!” to better persuasive effect than the feeble-sounding “I invite all of you to…”.

    How many extra syllables the first formulation gives the fist-banging speaker with which to underline the vehemence of his exhortation, compared with the second!

    On the other hand, I agree with you that these redundant expressions rarely — indeed, I presume you would say ‘never’ — have a place in formal written speech. Here, where their rhetorical impact, if any, cannot be augmented by a thumping fist or a wagging finger, they tend to blur rather than sharpen the reader’s focus.

    Nevertheless, the addition of a couple of extra syllables, such as a redundant expression provides, can sometimes improve the flow and rhythm of a sentence. For instance, I have been known to write ‘in order to…’ for this purpose in preference to the bare ‘to’, especially when I wish to emphasize the deliberateness with which some action is being performed. Such decisions come down to context and judgment: I do not think it is right to rigidly insist that all linguistic redundancies should be eliminated, because they occasionally have a legitimate place and purpose.

    Particularly in speech, besides the rhetorical function I have already mentioned, they can give the speaker a little extra time to formulate his thoughts. After all, who among us is so well-organized in his thinking that he can flawlessly extemporize fully-formed sentences, especially when discussing complicated topics? Most of us need the brief breathing-space that the occasional redundant phrase provides in order to piece together what we are trying to say, even though the result may be less elegant than we would wish.

    • Fred says:

      Yet again, thanks for making a good point — in this case, a post that comes off as too rigid. Note that I added a qualifier at the beginning of second paragraph’s last sentence.

  • Erik Kowal says:

    Private Eye also has a long-running section called Pseud’s Corner, which highlights particularly ripe examples of writing that is pompous, blatantly pretentious, or which for other reasons deserves to be castigated for being the tripe that it is.

    Here are a couple of examples from Issue 1338 (19 April – 2 May 2013), of which the first is particularly revolting, both for its imagery and for its tortured construction:

    “…is it not something like one imagines urine and vaginal mucus drying in the pubic hair of a mountain goddess would smell?” — Will Self writes about cheese on his blog.

    (The very name of this meretricious know-it-all tells you everything you would want, or need, to know about him.)

    “The only way for a new generation to take control of what comes after this decaying period of pop culture is to conceive a dazzling cultural hybrid — perhaps involving computer coding, self-branding, comic book abstraction, architecture, a profound reconfiguring of rock’s dissolving moral and social vigilance and mutating speed of thought…” — Paul Morley on the ‘counterculture’, published in The Observer.

    (What that stray apostrophe is doing in rock’s beggars any attempt at interpretation. Mind you, so does the rest of the piece. Rock — paper — schisms…)

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