Wordiness Again

wordy sign

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:


             Jadwiga don’t got no cigarettes.

             Jadwiga doesn’t have any cigarettes.


Both sentences are equally 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.”

There are no gross violations of grammar in this sentence. Nonetheless, it 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.


Here is a brief review of strategies to ensure that your writing doesn’t resemble Sarah Palin’s speaking:

  1. Avoid expletive constructions such as there is and there are:

             Expletive: There is a need for greater vigilance

             Improved: We need to be more vigilant


             2) Prefer active to passive voice Passive: A decision was made by the committee that a party be held to celebrate Colbart’s promotion

             Active: The committee decided to hold a party to celebrate Colbart’s promotion


3)  Avoid nominalizations. Nominalization turns a verb into a noun and uses it with another verb when the original verb would do.  For example, we can take the perfectly good verb “investigate” and turn it into the noun “investigation” and use the noun with the verb “make.”


             Nominalized: The police made an investigation of the crime.

             Denominalized:  The police investigated the crime.


Try applying these three strategies to the following sentences and compare your revisions with mine.


  1. There are more than 20 students who made a contribution to the orphan’s fund.
  2. It is unlikely that a dinner prepared by Ralph and his friends will be appreciated by the gourmet club.
  3. Mort gave a report on the problem but failed to come up with a solution to it.
  4. The layoffs caused a serious drop in the morale of the staff.
  5. When there is too much haste, it leads to an increase of waste.


Possible revisions:


  1. More than 20 students contributed to the orphan’s fund.
  2. The gourmet club will probably not appreciate a meal that Ralph and his friends prepare.
  3. Mort reported on the problem but failed to solve it.
  4. Layoffs demoralized the staff.
  5. Haste makes waste.

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