The Plague of Wordiness



Here are three important ways to reduce wordiness in your writing:

  1. Avoid expletive constructions such as “there is” and “there are.”
  2. Prefer active to passive voice. “A wordy bureaucrat strangled three grammarians last night” is a better sentence than “There were three grammarians who were strangled by a wordy bureaucrat last night.”
  3. Avoid nominalizations. Nominalization turns a strong verb into a noun and uses the noun with a weak verb when the original verb itself is much better.

Take a look –oops—Look at this sentence:

The committee made an investigation of strangling techniques and came to a decision that bureaucrats should do exercises on their forearms.

The sentence contains three nominalizations:

  1. made an investigation = investigated
  2. came to a decision = decided
  3. do exercises on = exercise

By getting rid of the nominalizations, we can reduce the sentence from 21 to 13 words:

The committee investigated strangling techniques and decided that bureaucrats should exercise their forearms.

Notice that expletives (there is, there are, there was, etc.) often involve nominalization and the passive voice:

There was great damage done to the American psyche by the attacks of 9/11.

The active voice without the expletive and nominalization produces a shorter, more direct sentence:

The attacks of 9/11 greatly damaged the American psyche.

Reduce wordiness in the following sentences by eliminating expletives, passive voice, and nominalizations:

  1. It was decided by the committee that smoking should be banned.
  2. All the cars were sold by the salesman who made the greatest effort.
  3. We all have the ability to make improvements in our writing.
  4. It is crucial that something be done about the use of too many words per thought.
  5. There is a possibility that the woman who is giving the keynote speech will be late.

Possible revisions:

  1. The committee decided to ban smoking.
  2. The salesman who tried hardest sold all the cars.
  3. We can all improve our writing.
  4. We (or somebody) must do something about wordiness.
  5. The keynote speaker may be late.


Using too many words per thought is actually a bigger problem than bad grammar in writing these days. In many cases, bad grammar—i.e., usage that violates the rules of Standard English—doesn’t affect meaning at all.

Look at these two sentences:

  1. Jadwiga don’t got no cigarettes.
  2. Jadwiga doesn’t have any cigarettes.

Both sentences are understandable. In this case, grammar is a sort of class marker. We assume that the author of the first sentence is uneducated. Now look at this utterance by former U.S. Republican nominee for Vice President Sarah Palin:

“My concern has been the atrocities there in Darfur and the relevance to me with that issue as we spoke about Africa and some of the countries there that were kind of the people succumbing to the dictators and the corruption of some collapsed governments on the continent, the relevance was Alaska’s investment in Darfur with some of our permanent fund dollars.”

This sentence is pretty much incomprehensible gobbledygook. It was of course spoken, not carefully written and edited. Let’s try to come up with a sensible version.

Possible revision:

I have been concerned about atrocities in Darfur because Alaska has investments there.


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