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Nonexistent problems abound
Thursday, October 25, 2007   11:18 AM

In one of the most famous (and most abused) sections of The Elements of Style, Strunk advises us to "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.

Yesterday I edited a mystery shop report that was chock-full of very obvious pleonasms. Here are the two worst offenders:

There were no existing problems that needed to be resolved.

During the interaction she was pleasant and friendly while cashing out my voucher.

I saw about six different iterations of each of these sentences.

In this case, I'm going to have to side with Strunk. The dictate "omit needless words" sounds more sensible as the offenses against it become more egregious. See also: the Ten Commandments.

However, every word that doesn't "tell" isn't needless. The word that, for example, often doesn't tell you anything, so it follows that it could be omitted. Thusly:

This does not require the writer to make all his sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but every word should tell.

(Last month, Futility Closet presented a much more glaring example of Strunkian hypocrisy. Though as I observed then: maybe Strunk was joking?)

Obviously, some words are only there to add a bit of extra clarity to the sentence — and most of us are fine with that. In a poll I set up a while back, a majority of ACES forum members said they would write stated that instead of stated.

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