Clarity and Wordiness

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Does grammar matter? Take a look at these two sentences from the website of the Plain English Campaign(http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/). The first sentence is from a actual document on school children.

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

Here’s the plain English translation:

Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.

Which is the better sentence? For clarity, the second sentence is unquestionably better. Both are grammatically correct.

So, does grammar matter? If you never plan to write a term paper or have a job that requires you to write, probably not. You can make yourself understood without following the rules and conventions of formal English. If you constantly make glaring grammatical errors, a few snobs—human resource officers and the like—may think you’re an ignoramus, but who cares?

If you are in school or have a job that involves writing anything that will reflect on your employer, you probably should care about grammar. But you can follow all the grammatical rules and still write gibberish.  Avoid the following like the avian flu:

Pompous, wordy alternatives to simple expressions

High-quality written communication = Good writing

Silly, wordy euphemisms

We experienced a negative patient care outcome. = Our patient died.

Hackneyed phrases and empty “fluff” words

an ongoing process = a process (Every process is ongoing.)

an emergency situation = an emergency

Any phrase with more than one word that has a one-word equivalent

in spite of the fact that = although

owing (or due) to the fact that = because

at this point in time = now

gives positive encouragement to = encourages

is in direct contradiction with = contradicts

during the time that = when

in the eventuality that = if

did not succeed in achieving its objectives = failed

I knew a very successful lawyer who said that he always tried to write briefs that his grandmother could understand.

                              

                                       Wordiness

 

The biggest problem with writing these days isn’t bad grammar; it’s too many words per thought.  Many politicians, academics, management consultants, and assorted bureaucrats indulge in wordiness intentionally. Short of setting legal limits on the number of  words allowed per thought, we can’t do much about intentional wordiness. But those of us who have no stake in obscurity can reduce wordiness in our writing by applying a few simple principles.

Look at the following sentence:

There were three grammarians who were strangled by a wordy bureaucrat last night.

The first thing to notice is the expletive. In linguistics an expletive is a word or phrase that has no meaning and fills only a syntactic function There were and it is are expletive constructions. Sometimes expletives are useful, but sentences can usually do without them.

Three grammarians were strangled by a wordy bureaucrat last night.

By getting rid of the expletive, we’ve reduced the sentence from thirteen to ten words. We can improve it even more by changing from the passive to the active voice. The difference between active and passive voice is easy to understand. In active voice, the doer of the action is the subject and comes first; in passive voice, the receiver of the action is the subject and comes first. Active: I ate the whole pizza. Passive: The whole pizza was eaten by me. Let’s change our sentence from passive to active voice.

A wordy bureaucrat strangled three grammarians last night.

We now have a sentence with just eight words instead of thirteen, and it’s a much better sentence. Finally, we can eliminate the redundancy.

A bureaucrat strangled three grammarians last night.

Reduce wordiness in your writing by avoiding expletives, preferring the more direct active voice to the passive, and eliminating redundancies

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5 thoughts on “Clarity and Wordiness

  1. Re: The biggest problem with writing these days isn’t bad grammar; it’s too many words per thought.

    Easy to offer here one of many lovely examples of Churchillian wit:

    “Winston Churchill was asked to comment on the text of an American general’s address. “Too many passives and too many zeds” was the comment. “What do you mean?”, asked the general. “Too many Latin polysyllabics like “systematize”, “prioritize” and “finalize”. And then the passives. What if I had said, instead of, “We shall fight on the beaches”, “Hostilities will be engaged with our adversary on the coastal perimeter”?”

    ( from Dominique Enright (2001)The Wicked Wit of Winston Churchill, Michael O’Mara Books, Limited, London.)

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  2. Regarding expletives:

    I’m not sure what is meant by “In linguistics an expletive is a word or phrase that has no meaning and fills only a syntactic function There were and it is are expletive constructions.” Would you elaborate, please?

    Of course the best known definition of an expletive is a dirty word …. But if the official meaning is what you present here (and I have no doubt that you are correct), how did the term get grafted on to the popular understanding of the word?

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  3. I’m so glad you asked, Reuben.. The word comes from the Latin verb explere meaning “to fill out” and refers to a word or phrase that fills out a sentence but doesn’t add any meaning. For example, in the sentence “It is raining,” “it” is sort of a dummy subject and has nor referent, hence it’s an expletive. Without the expletive one would have to say something like “Rain is falling.” “There is” and “there are” are expletives. Sometime in the early 19th “expletive” acquired the additional meaning of a swear word. In the sentence “What the fuck are you doing voting for a fucking Tory?” the words “fuck” and “fucking” are expletives; they fill out the sentence with no specific meaning but with lots of connotation, of course.

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  4. OK: “refers to a word or phrase that fills out a sentence but doesn’t add any meaning.”

    I see the swear words being expletives in the example above, but presumably it isn’t an expletive in the following example?: “They were fucking.” Here the swear word is essential to the meaning, even if the word itself could be replaced by a more genteel equivalent, yes? So it is only the context that defines whether or not a given word or phrase is an expletive?

    And in my example just above, is “itself” an expletive?

    But does this mean that any phrase is, by definition, an expletive, if it can be removed and no meaning is lost? What about:

    “The sun shone very hot today” ….

    Because the sun’s surface temperature is (for all practical purposes) constant, is “very hot” an expletive in the latter sentence? [BTW: “surface” and “for all practical purposes” are not expletives in the latter sentence! Ask a physicist!]

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  5. Nobody can get much by you Reuben. Of course, expletives like “shit” and “fuck” can also be actual verbs that count as vulgarities. See if you can spot the expletive and vulgarity in the following sentence: “Shit! Don’t shit in the flower bed!”

    “Itself” is a meaningful reflexive pronoun, so of course it’s not an expletive. In “The sun shone very hot today,” of course “hot” is not an expletive, and it describes the effect of the sun on us Earthlings, not the temperature of the sun’s surface. Ask any sentient human being who is a native speaker of English!

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