Wordiness & Redundancy

...writing with a firehose

This is a work in progress: lots of writing, formatting, revising, proofing left to do! — David McMurrey

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If you've browsed around in this book, you might be saying to yourself "This whole book is about wordiness!" So what's the deal with this chapter? To develop a keen eye for wordiness, you need to learn to spot specific kinds of wordiness. Expletives, passive voice, nominalization, for example—each creates its own special brand of wordiness. On the other hand, although they sometimes seem wordy, noun stacks compress an expression to such a degree that they become difficult; readers actually need more words to understand what is going on in a noun stack.

One of the categories of wordiness covered in this chapter might be called "wordy set phrases" or "canned" phrases. For example, instead of writing "at that point in time," you could simply write "then." Instead of "in view of the fact that," you could write "because."

Another category, also covered in this chapter, involves redundancy. Here, that means using words that actually repeat in some way—for example, "complete and total," "transportation vehicle," "use and implementation," or "plan and scheme."

Wordy canned phrases:
Phrases that use three, four or even more words when just one of two will do just fine.

Why do we use wordy set phrases and redundancies like these? It depends on how cynical you are about people and society. For the particularly cynical, the reason is that some people need to sound important, authoritative, businesslike, intelligent—or else they need to hide the lack of substance in what they are communicating. Others thoughtlessly mimic the wordy style or else they fear sounding different from those in their organization.

Spotting Wordiness

As mentioned above, wordiness divides into two categories. One of those categories is wordy set or "canned" phrases such "as in view of the fact that" when "because" works just as well. Here are some additional examples:

Examples of Wordy Canned Phrases
Wordy version Simpler version
subsequent to after
in the event that is
in my own personal opinion I believe…
due to the fact that because
it would be advisable to you should
in close proximity to near
in view of the fact that because
at that point in time then
has the ability to can
with reference to the fact that concerning
a large number of many
within the realm of possibility possible
in some cases sometimes

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Redundancy is a category of wordiness. A redundant pair of words repeat each other such as "very unique" or "state and express." As the following categories show, there are some comically wacky varieties of redundancy:

Categories of Redundancy
Category Wordy version Simpler version
Redundant adverbs and verbs completely finish, tentatively suggest, connected together, prove conclusively finish, suggest, connected, prove
Redundant adverbs and adjectives totally unique, completely finished, thoroughly complete, bothersomely annoying, productively useful unique, complete, annoying, useful
Redundant adjectives complete and total failure, a slender, narrow margin? complete failure, narrow margin
Redundant adverbs completely and totally fail, carefully and methodically working fail, carefully working
Redundant adjectives and nouns transportation vehicle, tactful diplomacy, successful victory, twenty-four-hour day, time schedule, alternative choices, component part vehicle, diplomacy, victory, day, schedule, choices, part
Redundant nouns parts and components, means and methods, ways and means, use and implementation, source and origin parts, methods, ways, use, source
Redundant verbs behave and conduct oneself; scheming and planning; discusses and explains behave, scheming, discusses

The use of multiple words to state the same idea—repetition.

Fixing Wordiness

When you first start trimming wordiness out of text, you may feel as though you are damaging the meaning of that text. You may feel like a barbarian, slashing and ripping apart a carefully devised expression. Indeed, if you are an editor who is trimming wordiness out of a writer's document, that writer may angrily accuse you of changing the meaning of the text. Solution: just give that writer this chapter to read.

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We all produce first drafts that contain wordiness. You should be able to reduce the word count of most rough drafts by as much as 20 percent! Try it—once you've been through this book, or at least this chapter.

If you've studied the categories of wordiness in the preceding, consider the following examples. In these examples, we'll mercilessly de-bloat, uninflate, cut, chop, slash the dead wood. Remember: every useless word chopped out is a victory! As you read this next section, cover up the revisions and see if you can mentally work them out yourself.

Wordy version: IRH, Inc., utilizes analytical tools developed by its research group to determine the optimal policies, strategies, and procedures to meet clients' objectives.

utilizes sounds so much more self-important, doesn't it? But doesn't uses express the same idea but in 4 fewer letters? optimal is a big pompous word for best. And while there are shades of difference in meaning between policies, strategies, and procedures, are those shades really needed here? (True, we could tell if we knew the full context. But let's be cynical and think not!)

Revision: IRH, Inc., uses analytical tools developed by its research group to determine the best strategies to meet clients' objectives.

Wordy version: It is important for persons to read the notes, advice and information detailed opposite and then complete all sections of the form prior to its immediate return to the agency via the envelope provided.

Notice how the entire phrase It is important for persons to can be replaced by Please! This reduction of of 6 words to 1 word also makes the sentence dramatically clearer and more direct. Always suspect a string of two or more words such as notes, advice and information. What's the real difference? Are these distinctions really necessary here? Probably not. The rest of the original sentence is a jungle of unnecessary words and phrases—get out the bush wacker!

Revision: Please read the instructions, fill out the form completely, and then send it back as soon as possible in the envelope provided.

Wordy version: High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.

Here's an example where cutting out all the wordiness and using simple words reduces the sentence to a laughably obvious statement! Aren't High-quality learning environments simply schools? Isn't preconditions better stated with rewording that uses necessary? Notice in the revision how we've added people; the original made it sound like some impersonal chemical process was at work. Notice too how this big pompous phrase a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process can be reduced to enable people to learn more.

Revision: Good schools enable people to learn more.

Wordy version: At this point in time, our time schedules do not allow or permit further or additional work tasks.

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At this point in time is one of those wordy canned phrases that can be replaced with now, or in this particular sentence with Currently. Do schedules involve anything other than time? The verbs allow and permit say the same thing—they are redundant to each other. The same is true for the adjectives further and additional. And, finally, all work involves tasks and vice versa.

Revision: Our schedules are full!

Wordy version: With reference to the fact that the company is deficient in manufacturing and production space, the contract may in all probability be awarded to some other enterprise.

With reference to the fact that is another wordy canned phrase. Replace it with because. There is no real difference between manufacturing and production. The verb may carries within it the notion of in all probability. We don't need to say to some other enterprise because that's obvious.

Revision: The company may not be awarded the contract because it lacks production facilities.

Got the idea? Don't hesitate to be ruthless, merciless. You are doing humanity a great favor. There are enough words in the world already. If you are confident with what you've studied in this chapter, use these two sets of exercises to test yourself:

Fun with Wordiness

It may seem perverse of this chapter—and this book— to encourage you to create sentence-style problems—in this case, wordiness problems. What's that old saying? "Know your enemy." If you can generate wacky wordy sentences, you are all the more adept at spotting and fixing wordiness. Here are some examples. As always cover up the revisions and see how yours compare.

Concise version: Information theory is a branch of applied mathematics and engineering involving the quantification of information.

To sabotage this perfectly decent sentence, think of synonyms for branch, quantification, and information and add them to the sentence. Extra points if you can come up with multiple words to state is and involving that add lots of deadwood. Perhaps even the adjective applied can be repeated with a synonym!

Wordy version: Information theory is a branch of practical, applied mathematics and engineering having to do with the quantification of data and information.

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Aren't applied and practical the same? Perhaps, a mathematician could clarify, but the sentence does not seem to need that distinction. having to do with is a fiendish way of inflating the humble word involving.

Concise version: Historically, information theory was developed to find fundamental limits on compressing and reliably communicating data.

What's a three-word way of saying Historically? What are synonyms for developed, fundamental, communicating?

Wordy version: Historically in the past, information theory was created and developed to find basic, fundamental limits on compressing and reliably transmitting and communicating data.

Once you develop an eye (or ear) for wordiness, redundant phrases like Historically in the past are downright funny. As for created and developed—what's the real difference? Probably, nothing here, but we'd want to check the context.

Concise version: Since its inception, it has broadened to find applications in many other areas including statistical inference, neurobiology networks, evolution and function of molecular codes, quantum computing, and plagiarism detection.

This one is a gold mine for redundant synonyms.

Wordy version: Since the beginning of its inception, it has broadened and expanded to find applications and uses in many other areas and fields including statistical inference, neurobiology networks, evolution and function of molecular codes, quantum computing, and plagiarism sensing and detection.

Aren't sensing and detection wonderfully redundant? Give us a gold star.

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Concise version: The impact of information theory has been crucial to the success of the Voyager missions to deep space, the invention of the CD, the feasibility of mobile phones, the development of the Internet, the study of linguistics and human perception, the understanding of black holes, and numerous other fields.

Obviously, it's fairly easy to cram redundant synonyms into these sentences. Try thinking of redundant modifiers. Remember "very unique." Do something like that with crucial and feasibility.

Wordy version: The influence and impact of information theory has been extremely crucial to the success of the Voyager missions to deep space, the creation and invention of the CD, the potential feasibility of mobile phones, the development of the Internet, the study of and research in linguistics and of human perception, the understanding of black holes, and numerous other fields and areas.

The redundant phrase extremely crucial is like very unique—how much more crucial can crucial be?

Concise version: Redundancy in information theory is the number of bits used to transmit a message minus the number of bits of actual information in the message.

Think of a multi-word way of saying is or used.

Wordy version: Redundancy within the realm information theory has to do with the total number of bits put into use to transmit a communication message minus the total number of bits of actual information and data in the communication message.

Perhaps if the context included subtotals, the use of total with number here might be a good idea. Otherwise, it's unnecessary.

Maybe by now you are a demon for wordiness? Careful—don't try this at work. People might move your desk to the parking lot. If you are confident you can add wordiness and redundancy to sentences, try this exercise:

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Links to these exercises are provided at the end of the preceding sections where they are relevant. But here they all are in case you read the text straight through:

Additional Resources

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