Strunk and White wrote in The Elements of the Style to "omit needless words." What makes a word needless, and when is it OK to be redundant?
The Elements of Style by Strunk & White is one of the most popular usage guides of modern times, and of the book’s advice, “Omit needless words,” may be the most memorable and repeated maxim. It is an example of its own command—it has no needless words—and it appeals to any teacher whose students pad their ideas with fluff to reach a required word count. Despite its simplicity, however, the maxim leaves us with one open question: What makes a word needless?
One simple measure is whether a word adds meaning, and the answer can vary from sentence to sentence. Consider personally. At first, it seems to be redundant. Don’t the following sentences mean the same thing?
Personally, I want lasagna for dinner.
I want lasagna for dinner.
Although it’s true that both sentences mean the writer wants lasagna, adding personally to the beginning acknowledges that other people are involved. With personally, it sounds like less of a demand, or it can even convey a sense of resentment or superiority:
Personally, I want lasagna for dinner, but you know we always end up having what George wants.
Personally, I never call mom before noon, but Edith seems to think it’s fine.
Would those sentences mean the same things without personally? Yes, but the writers would also sound less put-upon and self-righteous without the word personally.
Personally can also emphasize disagreement with an authority, an “I have to do this but I don’t want to” feeling:
Personally, I believe the company should reimburse you for those cocktails you sent to Lady Gaga’s table in Las Vegas at 3:00 a.m.―it was clearly a business development opportunity―but Mr. Pursestrings doesn’t agree.
Reflexive pronouns such as myself, himself, and herself can also add emphasis in ways that seem redundant at first glance. Certainly, the actions are the same in these sentences―but the emphasis is different.
I baked the cake.
I baked the cake myself.
The first sentence (I baked the cake) is a simple statement, perhaps the answer to a question. Maybe someone asked “Who baked the cake?” The myself in the second sentence (I baked the cake myself) adds a different feeling, for example, it could convey a sense of accomplishment from a 10-year-old who has baked his first cake or a sense of abandonment from someone who expected to bake the cake with a friend.
A few weeks ago, I was talking with some reporters from a local radio station, and they said they had been debating whether it would be redundant to say that the unemployment rate “remains unchanged at five percent.” Remains and unchanged convey the same idea. You could say, “The unemployment rate remains at five percent,” or “The unemployment rate is unchanged at five percent,” and they both mean the same thing, but the reporters had decided it was OK to use both words because together remains and unchanged added emphasis, which is especially important in an audio program where people may miss a word or two, and I agree. It may be technically redundant, but it doesn’t bother me at all.
Social graces also play an often overlooked role in word choice and can be a justifiable reason to include unnecessary words. You didn’t get the job is sufficient to convey your meaning, but adding a “needless” lead-in helps soften the blow: I’m just writing to let you know that you didn’t get the job. Yes, it includes “unnecessary” words, but it sounds nicer.
In some cases, words are technically redundant, but serve a clarifying purpose.
For example, chai means “tea” in Hindi; therefore, chai tea technically means “tea tea.” In America, however, the word tea calls to mind simple black tea. In our culture, chai is a special kind of tea, and the word chai on the menu adds specificity. When chai was first introduced in America, customers probably wouldn’t have known that it was tea if they just saw the word chai on the menu, so writing chai tea was a wise business choice. Today, now that most people are familiar with chai, you can make more of an argument that the word tea is redundant or unnecessary.
Similarly, cider is technically juice pressed from apples, meaning that apple cider is redundant, but given that we can now buy blueberry cider, peach cider, and so on, apple cider makes it more clear what is in the bottle.
Dialects and regionalisms can also employ redundancy or wordiness, and fiction writers who want their characters to sound authentic embrace these quirks. For example, a character from Newfoundland may say, “Me, I think we should have lasagna,” and a grocer during the Depression may have insisted on being paid with “cash money.” Business writers, of course, should generally avoid such phrases.
Avoid Simple Redundancies
Finally, we have clichés and simple redundancies that allow us to omit needless words without wringing our hands about exceptions, niceties, or technicalities. The examples below are a small sample of the many types of phrases you can safely prune:
Abbreviations with Repeated Words
Simply Redundant or Wordy Phrases
close proximity (if you are in the proximity, you are close)
fiction novel (all novels are fiction)
free gift (all gifts should be free)
future plans (if you’re making plans, unless you’re a time traveler, they are for the future)
personal opinion (all opinions are personal unless otherwise specified)
old adage (all adages are old)
past experience (all experience is in the past)
twelve noon (noon is always at twelve)
A version of this article originally appeared in OfficePro Magazine.