12 Tips for Clipping Unnecessary Words

By Mark Nichol

In workshops and in writing guides, the admonition “Use fewer words” is one of the cardinal rules. Although I resist the excision of allegedly superfluous adverbs and adjectives, I heartily acknowledge that many other parts of speech are often unnecessary. Here are other ways to reduce word count:

1. “The standards define the process to the mobile phone using two different methods for invocation.”
Whenever you see the word different, consider whether it’s necessary. By default, it’s almost always not: For example, if two methods are described, they’re almost certainly by definition different: “The standards define the process to the mobile phone using two methods for invocation.”

2. “Currently, many of the digitized publications have not been properly paginated.”
By the same token, currently is almost always superfluous; the context generally makes clear that the statement refers to the present. Again, when the default setting is obviously relevant, omit the word: “Many of the digitized publications have not been properly paginated.”

3. “Ethics, on the other hand, is future oriented, that is to say a present choice is based on a future desire, intent, or consequence.”
For one thing, the phrase beginning “that is to say” is an independent clause; it should be separated from the preceding phrase by a semicolon: Furthermore, that four-word phrase is extraneous: “Ethics, on the other hand, is future oriented; a present choice is based on a future desire, intent, or consequence.” (Alternatively, a colon is usually correct.)

4. “That’s how the newspaper described a new credit card two entrepreneurs, Jon Doe and Jane Roe, will soon make available.”
It’s obvious, not to mention trivial, how many entrepreneurs are involved. After the number is deleted, the appositive consists solely of the word entrepreneurs, so no punctuation preceding or following the names is required: “That’s how the newspaper described a new credit card entrepreneurs John Doe and Jane Roe will soon make available.”

5. “Low-income residents with leaking pipes can call out a plumber to fix leaks for free.”
You are free to employ the idiomatic phrase “for free” in conversation and informal writing, but in your professional prose, omit the unnecessary for: “Low-income residents with leaking pipes can call out a plumber to fix leaks free.”

6. “This is the reason why the imposition of restrictions on fertility treatments requires extra caution.”
“The reason” and why are interchangeable terms, so they are redundant to each other: “This is why the imposition of restrictions on fertility treatments requires extra caution.”

7. “Even if the state has the power to narrow down the population that is entitled to such treatment, it must exercise restraint.”
The phrase “that is”—and its variant “that are” as well as “who is” and “who are”—is often superfluous: “Even if the state has the power to narrow down the population entitled to such treatment, it must exercise restraint.”

8. “This step gives both the patient and the physician the freedom to decide whether or not to enter into an agreement for medical treatment.”
Whether implies a choice, so “or not” is extraneous: “This step gives both the patient and the physician the freedom to decide whether to enter into an agreement for medical treatment.”

9. “By signing the consent form, they manifested their intention to have a child and agreed to each and every stage of the treatment.”
“Each and every,” and pals like “first and foremost,” are infections of bloviation from speechifying and have no place in written discourse (and won’t be missed if omitted from oration): “By signing the consent form, they manifested their intention to have a child and agreed to each stage of the treatment.”

10. “It is for this reason that medical treatment should not be administered to a patient without consent.”
It is a weak way to start a sentence, and often a sign that the sentence can be tightened up somewhat: “For this reason, medical treatment should not be administered to a patient without consent.”

11. “The reason is that in some countries, genetic parenthood is the fundamental prerequisite for the application of family law.”
The words that follow “The reason is that” comprise the explanation, so the phrase superfluous: “In some countries, genetic parenthood is the fundamental prerequisite for the application of family law.”

12. “His past history indicates that you should not count on him to adhere to his future plans.”
This sentence opens and closes with redundant phrases; history is always in the past, and plans are always in the future: “His history indicates that you should not count on him to adhere to his plans.”

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17 Responses to “12 Tips for Clipping Unnecessary Words”

  • Rebecca

    I read and re-read my writing and ‘slice and dice’ wherever I can. Sometimes less is more.

  • RedMtl

    With regard item 5, “Low-income residents with leaking pipes can call out a plumber to fix leaks for free,” one should note that the whole sentence sounds peculiar. While I agree that “for free” can certainly be reduced to “free,” if the “Low-income residents” have leaking pipes, surely a urologist is a more suitable party to consult.

    Better wording would be: “Low-income residents who have leaking pipes in their residence can request a plumber to fix the leaks at no cost.”

  • Ken

    Good tips.

  • Amy

    Love the post. The last one on “past history” is particular to the medical field. The standard format for a medical record includes PMH (Past Medical History). It seems that scientific and medical writing has many idiosyncratic uses of redundant and wordy language; hence the plethora of examples for this post. I dislike the fact that medical writers often omit commas when there are multiple adjectives preceding a noun.

  • MarkI

    It’s rare I disagree with you folk, but this:

    “Low-income residents with leaking pipes can call out a plumber to fix leaks free.”

    …just doesn’t sound right to me. “Fix leaks free”? Free of what?

    Perhaps it’s my Britishness, but it grates on me almost as much as “write” for “write to”.

  • Sharon

    In some cases, I’d rearrange the entire sentence. For example, in MarkI’s case above, I agree that “fix leaks free” is awkward. Instead, I might say:

    A plumber will make free repairs to leaking pipes for low-income residents.

  • Michael

    Very useful Mark, thanks again. Er… I suppose ‘again’ is redundant?

  • Julie

    To avoid extraneous words, I offer these suggestions:

    Example 7: Omit “down.” Doesn’t “narrow” carry the meaning alone? “Even if the state has the power to narrow the poulation entitled to such treatment, it must exercise restraint.”

    Example 8: Omit “both” and one “the”: “This step gives the patient and the physician freedom to decide whether to enter into an agreement for medical treatment.” (Perhaps every “the” could be omitted.)

    Good post; Hemingway would be pleased. I end with his famous six-word short story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

    That is economy of words!

  • Michael

    @Julie: I like the Hemingway quote, but are we talking about economizing on words or simply removing extraneous ones?

    There are plenty of situations where economizing is rightly the goal: academic papers and newspaper articles, for instance. In others, an over-eager paring might leave the text all skin and bones, and hence dull.

  • Margaret

    Every one of those sentences is badly constructed. All could be rendered at no more than 75% of the length – and their meaning clarified in the process.

  • Margaret

    For example.

    5. “Low-income residents with leaking pipes can call out a plumber to fix leaks for free.”

    Residents on low incomes can get leaking pipes fixed free of charge.

    Redundant ideas:
    Leaking pipes have leaks (duh)
    Fixers of leaks are plumbers (duh)
    Leaving room for a few grace words:
    “Low-income residents” is insulting compared to “Residents on low income”; “free of charge” confers clarity.

  • Precise Edit

    As Capote commented: I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.

    Concision leads to clear, elegant writing. Here’s one of our tips on concise writing from 300 Days of Better Writing: Remove “what is” and “what are” phrases.

    We already know that “to be” verbs weaken writing. Examples of to be verbs are “is,” “am,” “was,” and “are.” These words are also problematic when combined with “what” to make “what is” and “what are” phrases. Consider these sentences.

    “You know what the reasons are.”
    “The technician discovered what the problem is.”

    In both sentences, the weak phrases can be removed without making any other changes in the sentences and without changing the meanings. This is a clue that the phrases can, and should be, removed. They don’t add value, just more words. The revised sentences are as follows.

    “You know the reasons.”
    “The technician discovered the problem.”

    You might not be able to do this in every case, but when you see those weak phrases, remove them and evaluate the revised sentences. In most cases, the writing will be more direct and concise.

    Here’s another of our strategies for concise writing, this time dealing with using the right subject and action: Focus on the actor for concise writing.

    To write clearly and concisely, you want to use the main actor (i.e., rhetorical subject) as the main subject. This lets you remove unnecessary, but common, phrases at the beginning of sentences. Consider this sentence.

    “One way that writers make readers confused is by using unfamiliar words.”

    In this sentence, the subject is “way.” However, the main actor (i.e., the rhetorical subject) doing the main action (“confuse”) is “writer.” Writers are doing the action being described by this sentence, so “writers” should be the subject. When we use “writers,” we get the following possible revision.

    “Writers make readers confused by using unfamiliar words.”

    This gets rid of the unnecessary phrase “one way that” and places the emphasis on the actor: “writers.” We can further revise this by changing the adjective “confused” back into a verb:

    “Writers confuse readers by using unfamiliar words.”

    We can further revise this by asking, “What confuses readers?” This gives us our final revision:

    “Unfamiliar words confuse readers.”

  • Precise Edit

    >>The words that follow “The reason is that” comprise the explanation….

    Considering your later post on “comprise” – this would be a nice little fix. “The words that follow ‘The reason that’ compose the explanation…

    or

    The explanation comprises the words that follow….

  • Mark Nichol

    Precise:

    Yes, as I was writing this article about comprise, I noticed that I had used it incorrectly several times on the site. Constitute is another possible replacement.

  • Pat

    On #8, I would also delete the word “the” from before the words “patient” and “physician.” “This step gives both patient and physician the freedom to decide … “

  • Pat

    On #8, I would also delete the word “the” from before “patient” and “physician.” “This step gives both patient and physician the freedom to decide … ” etc.

  • Danno

    I like your article very much, and I am generally a great proponent of avoiding unnecessary words. However, I feel that all writing bears a poetic component, which could be compromised if one were simply to remove every “that is” or “who is” for the sake of minimizing word count. Certain words and phrases obviously weaken a composition or oration, such as (your example) “the reason that…” or (my favorite) “what you want to do is you want to…” However, a writer may at times choose to include an otherwise nonessential word for emphasis, such as in the “two different methods” example you cited, or to provide a harmonious rhythm.

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