“Omit needless words!” cried Professor Strunk. That imperative was No. 13 in his list of “Elementary Principles of Composition.” It provides a text for today.
Will Strunk taught English at Cornell University 90 years ago. His “little book,” as he lightly called it, became a classic in 1959 when Macmillan published it with a superb commentary by E.B. White of New Yorker fame.
This is the whole of 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.“
The whole of the writing art lies concealed in the professor’s admonition. We must prune away the suckers that weaken the stem of a sentence. In the process we must constantly ask ourselves, is this word necessary? You be the editor.
In a review of Japanese-American relations following World War II, The Associated Press reported, “The healing process began …” Would you have deleted the word “process”?
The Washington Post recalled an incident early in the war in Afghanistan when reporter Jack Kelley of USA Today “reached a tiny hamlet along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.” Was the adjective “tiny” necessary?
A couple of years ago a Post columnist speculated that Martha Stewart “could become the first convicted felon ever to win a Daytime Emmy Award.” Time magazine was to the same effect: “A lie turned her into a convicted felon.” A felon, by definition, is one who has been convicted of a felony. Was the amplifying “convicted” necessary?
In a doctor’s office in Albany, N.Y., a patient was asked to fill out a form describing “Your Past Medical History.” In the Economist magazine last August, a reporter spoke of judges who see the law as a seamless web of “past precedents.” In The Washington Post, we are reminded of the Supreme Court’s “prior precedents” on military prisoners. Is not every precedent a “prior” precedent, and all history “past”?
Lindsey Butler of Charleston, S.C., wonders why we need a “why,” as in, “The reason why Bush’s favorable rating is dropping month by month is that …” Charles Barr of Somewhere in Cyberspace questions an “only” in a report last January about the late Coretta Scott King. “On Saturday she made only her first public appearance since last year’s King holiday observance.” The “why” and the “only” take up little space. Do they violate Rule 13 on needless words?
Steven L. Brown of Tucson, Ariz., asks about wordy niceties, e.g., “We would like to invite you to attend a symposium …” Why not get right to the substance: “We invite you to attend.” Less is – usually – more.
Over the past few years my file of redundancies, both malignant and benign, has bulged with nominations. They include: full stop, skip over, leave behind, fade away, sudden urge, soothing balm, specific example, general public and unsolved mystery. Is anything gained by discussing a “long” litany? Surely many a pattern is obviously a “recurring” pattern. Are not all examples “specific” examples? Is not every exodus a “mass” exodus?
Strunk’s Rule 13 is a great rule. No doubt about it. But tell me: How rigorously should it be applied?
James Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.