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In Search of Needless Words

In a 1918 version of his tract The Elements of Style, the Cornell English professor William Strunk wrote, under the heading “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.

In the expanded version of the pamphlet he saw to publication in 1959, Strunk’s onetime student E.B. White wrote that into the “omit needless words” creed

Will Strunk really put his heart and soul. In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself — a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, “Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

White learned his mentor’s lesson well. Of all the words in the above passage, I would judge only five to be needless — “really,” “to the class,” and “forward.” (“In the days” and “sitting” are needful, in my opinion — they don’t add to the meaning but they help with the cadence and mise-en-scène.)

Strunk’s brief paragraph (providing the lesson) and White’s slightly longer one (showing the lesson being carried out) could be the text for an entire semester’s composition course. In writing, no less than in science, parsimony is a supremely important principle. There are many reasons for this, one being a sort of self-interested altruism: being considerate of your reader’s time so he or she will be more inclined to heed what you’re trying to say.

That reminds me: The first couple of minutes of the hypothetical class would be devoted to explaining that the “he” in Strunk’s last sentence was how people expressed themselves in 1918. I believe the wording was retained in the 1959 edition, but subsequently the sentence was changed to, “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.” Not only was sexism averted but four needless words — and one needless comma — were omitted!

Irrespective of sexism, the sentence is vital. Omitting needless words doesn’t mean you have to write like Hemingway. In the first three paragraphs of Bleak House, Dickens takes 383 words to say how it’s foggy in London. I don’t find any of them needless and I don’t think Strunk would, either.

Still, Strunk and White have been (mis)interpreted as mandating terseness. That is partly their own fault. They could have been a good deal more forthcoming in describing what it means for a word to be “needless” and what it means for one to “tell.”

Certainly, in the needless department, there is low-hanging fruit. Strunk gives examples of overstuffed phrasing and suggests fixes:

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
this is a subject which this subject
His story is a strange one. His story is strange.

But even here it’s complicated. A slightly wordier or even redundant phrasing can suit the writer’s style or merely the demands of a particular sentence. Strunk, with his grabbing of his own and his readers’ lapels, sometimes gets carried away. He writes, for example, “the expression the fact that should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.” That is just plain wrong and deserves to be flayed the next time Geoffrey Pullum rails against Strunk and White’s “stupid advice.”

The more challenging search-and-destroy mission is against stuff that’s superfluous, marginal, repetitive, tangential, and/or boring. It is wicked hard to recognize these characteristics in our prose. We writers are like God in one way: When we look over what we have made, it seems to us that it is good.

John McPhee, who in addition to his sterling books and articles is a legendary writing teacher at Princeton, thinks that one way to learn to self-edit is to edit others. His onetime student Joel Achenbach, in an article about McPhee in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, writes:

One of his assignments is called “greening.” You pretend you are in the composing room slinging hot type and need to remove a certain amount of the text block to get it to fit into an available space. You must search the text for words that can be removed surgically.

“It’s as if you were removing freight cars here and there in order to shorten a train — or pruning bits and pieces of a plant for aesthetic and pathological reasons, not to mention length,” McPhee commanded. “Do not do violence to the author’s tone, manner, style, nature, thumbprint.”

He made us green a couple of lines from the famously lean Gettysburg Address, an assignment bordering on sadism. A favorite paragraph designated for greening was the one in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that begins, “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine.” (McPhee, in assigning this, wrote: “Caution: You are approaching what may be my favorite paragraph in a lifetime of sporadic reading.”)

So how about it, readers? How much can you nonviolently green the Conrad?

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