Verbal profundity is the fallacy that words which look impressive must mean a lot. The person, for example, who exclaimed of a painting that it exhibits "orderly and harmonious juxtapositions of color patterns" seemed to be saying a great deal. But if the words mean anything more than "color harmony," it is difficult to see what.
Closely related to verbal profundity is the desire false elegance, often a variety of what in the last chapter we called pretentious diction. A sentence like
A worker checks the watch's time-keeping performance.
is an attempt to cast a verbal spell over the job of quality control in a watch factory. This is shorter, simpler, and clearer:
A worker checks the watch's accuracy.
Confusion about the subject also leads to wordiness:
Music is similar to dress fads in that its styles change from time to time. Perhaps the change is subtle, but no one style of music will remain on top for a very long time. I am not talking about classical music, but rather about popular music that appeals to the majority of young people.
This writer did not begin with a word specific enough for his subject. He chose too general a term ("music"). The final sentence reveals that he himself felt the problem, for he spends twenty words explaining what kind of music he means. How much easier to have begun
Popular music is similar to dress fads. . . .
Sometimes deadwood stems from ignorance of words. That's the problem here:
In this novel, part of the theme is stated directly in so many words, and part is not so much said in specific words but is more or less hinted at.
Had the writer known the terms explicit and implicit he could have made the point more clearly and concisely:
In this novel, part of the theme is explicit, and part is implicit.
A limited vocabulary is no disgrace. We all suffer that handicap, and education is the process of overcoming it. But while it may be pardonable, not knowing the right word often re-
suits in obscurity deadwood. It helps to keep a list of pairs like explicit and implicit which enable you to make distinctions quickly and neatly:
stract, actual/ideal, absolute/relative are other examples.
Finally, excessive caution contributes to deadwood. Some people are afraid to express anything as certain. They will , write:
It seems that Columbus discovered the New World in 1492.
Certainly some things call for caution. But no one can lay down a blanket rule about when qualification is necessary and when it is verbose. We'll consider the question in closer detail later in the chapter; for the moment remember that extreme caution in writing is more often a vice than a virtue.
A false sense of what is significant, confusion about what you want to say, ignorance of words, and timidity, then, are some of the psychological factors leading to deadwood. In practice, they are manifested in either of two ways: circumlocution, using too many words to say something; and point-lessness, saying something that doesn't need to be said at all.
> Avoid Meaningless Strings of Verbs
English often conveys subtleties by stringing verbs: i was going to go tomorrow.
Here the verbs are justified by the meaning (that a planned future action is now uncertain or negated). But when a string of verbs says nothing that cannot be said with equal clarity or force in fewer words, the result is deadwood:
The current foreign situation should serve to start many Americans to begin thinking.
BETTER: ... should start many Americans thinking.
Nucleonics investigates the smaller particles that go to make up the nucleus of the atom.
BETTER: . .. that make up the nucleus of the atom.
A special case of empty verb strings is the awkward passive construction. The focus of thought or tact may make the passive voice necessary. Generally, however, you should write in the active voice. Overuse of the passive lards sentences with empty words:
The writer's point must be clearly stated by him at the beginning of the paragraph.
BETTER: The writer must clearly state his point at the beginning of the paragraph.
The work must be done by her by tomorrow. BETTER: She must do the work by tomorrow.
(In the last example, however, note that if one wished to emphasize "work," the passive would be justified.)
t> The Best Modification Is Concise and Direct
In practice this principle often boils down to not using a phrase if a word will do:
She conducted herself in an irrational manner. BETTER: She conducted herself irrationally. BETTER YET: She acted irrationally.
He didn't take the advice given to him by his doctor. BETTER: He didn't take his doctor's advice.
It leaves us with the thought that. ... BETTER: It leaves us thinking that
A common kind of adjectival wordiness is using a full relative clause to introduce a participle or adjective that could be attached directly to the noun:
This is the same idea that was suggested last week. BETTER: This is the same idea suggested last week.
The family who are living in that house are my friends. BETTER: The family living in that house are my friends.
In such clauses the relative word (that, which, who) acts as the subject and is immediately followed by a form of be which is, in turn, followed by a participle or adjective. The relative word and the verb contribute nothing except to hook the adjective or participle to the noun. Occasionally clarity, emphasis, or rhythm justify the whole clause. Mostly they do not.
The direct, economic use of participles is a resource of style that inexperienced writers underuse. The economy also applies to adverbial clauses, which can sometimes be boiled down to one or two operative words:
Because they lacked experience, they didn't do a good job. BETTER: Lacking experience, they didn't do a good job.
Now and then, independent clauses or separate sentences may be pruned and subordinated by means of participles:
These ideas are out of date, and they don't tell us anything new. BETTER: These ideas are out of date, telling us nothing new.
Participles are also more economical than gerunds (the nounal use of the -ing form of a verb; see page 114):
She worried about the cooking ofthe dinner. BETTER: She worried about cooking the dinner.
Note, however, that you must consider meaning in such revisions. "She worried about the cooking of the dinner" would make sense if someone else were doing the cooking.
t> Specificity Means Concision
Beginning with a word too general for your idea creates a need for wordy modification:
People who enter college for the first time find it difficult to adjust to the teaching.
"People" is too inclusive. To specify what kind of "people," the writer must add seven words. English provides no single term meaning "people who enter college for the first time" (except matriculants, a Latinism too forbidding for this writer's purpose). Students, however, would be more precise than people, and freshmen, more precise still (even though second-semester freshmen are not, strictly speaking, entering college for the first time). With freshmen only one modifier is needed:
College freshmen find it difficult to adjust to the teaching.
While most frequent with nouns, failure to be specific occurs with verbs as well:
The sudden change motivated him into a rage. BETTER: The sudden change enraged him.
They emerged victorious. BETTER: They won.
The too-general verb is often a form of he, have, or seem. When these merely link a noun or modifier to the subject, they can often be replaced by a more exact verb:
The people were supportive of conservation. BETTER: The people supported conservation.
Officers have to have a knowledge their men. BETTER: Officers have to know their men.
t> Keep Prepositions and Conjunctions Brief connectives grow like weeds if you do not pull them:
More than one game has been decided on the basis of a fumble. BETTER: . .. decided by a fumble.
Wordy equivalents for because, how, and so are particularly common:
The bill failed as a result of the fact that the Senate was misinformed.
BETTER: ... because the Senate was misinformed.
She will show us the way in which to do it. BETTER: She will show us how to do it.
He becomes self-conscious to the extent that he withdraws into himself.
BETTER: He becomes so self-conscious that he withdraws into himself.
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