Solutions for Wordy Phrasing

By Mark Nichol

Efforts to make your writing more concise are admirable, but although some words and phrases won’t be missed or fewer or shorter words can be substituted, others may serve a useful distinction. Note, in the following examples and annotations, the differences in the suitability of various phrases.

“What the organization aims to do is produce an economically sustainable model.”
When a sentence describes a series of actions, revise to expunge the weakest among them. Start the sentence with the subject by omitting what, then delete do, and the rest falls into place: “The organization aims to produce an economically sustainable model.”

“I appreciate the fact that we can discuss this reasonably.”
A fact does not need to be identified as such. When such self-referential labeling occurs, delete it: “I appreciate that we can discuss this reasonably.”

“Due to the fact that you arrived late, we missed our flight.”
What does “due to the fact that” mean? “Because.” So use because instead: “Because you arrived late, we missed our flight.”

“We arrived early in order to get good seats.”
“In order to” can easily be reduced to to: “We arrived early to get good seats.” However, sometimes — especially in sentences in which the phrase precedes know or a similar verb — including it seems an improvement on the more concise version.

Retaining the phrase in “She reread the essay in order to understand its argument more clearly,” for example, suggests a contemplation that “She reread the essay to understand its argument more clearly” does not, and “She reread the essay so that she understood its argument more clearly” is the same length as, and no more elegant than, the original wording. “So as to” is a similar construction, as in “We studied other cultures so as to appreciate traditional customs that persist in immigrant communities.”

Also, “in order” is best retained before a negative infinitive, as in “I tiptoed across the room in order not to wake her.”

“I left the papers on my desk in order that I would not forget them.”
“In order that” is equivalent to so and can be replaced by that word: “I left the papers on my desk so I would not forget them.” (That may be retained but is optional.)

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8 Responses to “Solutions for Wordy Phrasing”

  • Oliver Lawrence

    Retaining “in order to” in “She reread the essay in order to understand its argument more clearly” suggests a contemplation that “She reread the essay to understand its argument more clearly” does not.

    Please could you elaborate. The two statements have identical meaning and connotations to me: she reread the essay with the stated purpose in mind.

  • Dan Erickson

    Great post. I’m a minimalist with words. I do my best to limit sentences to necessity. It’s hard. And I catch wordiness regularly. I’m currently editing a Mass Media textbook. It’s got so many “in facts,” “needless to says,” and such that I can delete about ten to twenty percent of the text without changing the meaning.

  • Dale A. Wood

    WHAT A GREAT ARTICLE! Would you believe that most of the original sentences sound like babbling, too?

    You did a fine job in boiling the first one down to this:
    “What the organization aims to do is produce an economically sustainable model.”

    Don’t forget: WHAT A GREAT ARTICLE!

    I would like to point out that the phrase “economically sustainable model,” is sheer jargon, too, and it is incomprehensible to the general reader. I am against jargon when the idea could be explained in Plain English. The word “model” here is poorly-defined, too. What does that mean?
    In contrast, I can define precisely what a “mathematical model” in engineering, physics, or computer science means. Please give me a whole sheet of paper because I will need to draw some diagrams and write some equations.

    We have a problem with meteorologists on TV who toss around the phrase “computer model” when that vast majority of the general public has no idea what that means. I understand it because I am an engineer and I have used and written computer models of systems in other contexts: communication systems, control systems, and one or two others. However, it takes a lot of study to understand these things, just like it takes a lot of study by students in meteorology to understand what computer models in meteorology do.

    The bottom line is that writing intended for the general public should not be written with esoteric jargon and undefined terms in it.
    I say “should not” because it seems that there are always people who will write with esoteric jargon and undefined terms, even if they have to walk barefooted across hot lava to do it. (They are determined!)

    Don’t forget: WHAT A GREAT ARTICLE!

  • Gordon Havens

    Wordy phrasing such as “due to the fact that” harkens to when we were procrastinating high school essayists who had a “word count minimum” to meet. “So, in conclusion, in reference to all the previous points established and made, and trying to stay objective, I would summarize my thoughts as best I may by …

  • Dale A. Wood

    What a great correction and simplification:

    “Due to the fact that you arrived late, we missed our flight.”
    What does “due to the fact that” mean? It means “Because.”

    You are so right, and thank you.
    Also, there is another one that is so common in writing and and escpecially in TV journalism:
    They say “in advance of”, “ahead of”, and “prior to”,
    which all mean “before”.
    I believe that the wordy ways are just because they like to hear themselves babble, and because it makes them sound pompous.

    “In lieu of” is also a wordy way of saying a simple idea.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Concerning:
    “She reread the essay in order to understand its argument more clearly,” for example, suggests a contemplation.

    Why not just step up a notch in the verb:
    “She perused the essay to understand its argument more clearly.”

    Can you think of any more verbs that carry the same weight?

    “She read and reread the essay to understand its argument more clearly.”

    “Read and reread” can suggest that she did this several times,

    just as in “I have told and retold you that until my lips are turing blue.”
    D.A.W.

  • Bill

    All good. I find using “because” more effective in some sentences when it’s not the first word in them. The outcome’s the most important element in the sentence, so put it first, then “because,” then the cause. In this case, you can do better than “arrived” and omit a comma, too: We missed our flight because you were late.

  • dragonwielder

    @Gordon – spot on! hahaha. I had a high school English teacher who graded more on fluff than substance and conciseness. Not good practice for college, or for writing in the real world…

    Great article, as usual, Mark! I love whittling down wordiness.

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