Should 'needless' words be deleted?

Strunk says there are sticky words — words with no purpose — and his advice is simple: Delete them

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 15 Sep 2022, 6:37 PM

For a lover of language, can there be such a thing as “needless words”? I would have thought not — I am one of those who often tends to enjoy multiple words, the more the merrier — but no less an eminence than William Strunk, author of the classic The Elements of Style, disagrees with me. Strunk says there are needless words — words with no purpose — and his advice is simple: delete them.

Several examples that the stylists give of such “needless words” comes in this sentence: “I really don’t care for flying in aeroplanes all that much, so I came in on the train because of that.” It’s full of what some refer to as “sticky” words that “glue” up a sentence. Experts like Strunk would prefer the speaker of that sentence to revise it by saying simply: “I hate flying, so I took the train instead.”

Lawyers are particularly guilty of such “stickiness” — no lawyer would use a simple, declaratory sentence or word when a florid one full of multiple subordinate clauses can be found. One of my favourite examples of unnecessary legalese is the standard formula: “In witness whereof, the parties hereunto have set their hands to these presents as a deed on the day month and year hereinbefore mentioned.” What does it mean? In one word: “date”. Just write today’s date in the legal document and you don’t need that entire pointless sentence!

Language maven Richard Wydick, who objected to unnecessary legal jargon in his deservedly famous Plain English for Lawyers, writes: “In every English sentence are two kinds of words: working words and glue words. The working words carry the meaning of the sentence. In the preceding sentence, the working words are these: working, words, carry, meaning, and sentence. The others are glue words: the, the, of, and the. The glue words do perform a vital service. They hold the working words together to form a proper, grammatical sentence. Without them, the sentence would read like a telegram. But if the proportion of glue words is too high, that is a symptom of a badly constructed sentence. A well-constructed sentence is like fine cabinetwork. The pieces are cut and shaped to fit together with scarcely any glue. When you find too many glue words in a sentence, take it apart and reshape the pieces to fit together tighter.”

Wydick’s advice makes sense: you can’t eliminate “sticky words” altogether from your writing, but if you can use as few of them as possible, your sentences will read better and be easier to understand. You need some glue to hold your sentences together and ensure they make sense, just as your cabinetwork fits together, but you don’t need so much glue that it flows out of the joints of your furniture and makes holding it together a sticky experience.

In addition to “glue words”, there are also “lazy words”, words which mean so little that they are rarely appropriate. A classic example of a lazy word is “nice”. “Nice” is so imprecise that it always conveys less than you intend it to. If you say a dress is “nice”, do you mean it is pretty, elegant, formal, casual, colourful, well-cut, well-designed, shapely, or hides the wearer’s flaws? All of those could be appropriate responses to a dress, but “nice” is too lazy a term to convey any of them. Other lazy words used both in speech and writing that should be drastically reduced, if not eliminated, include “basically”, “actually”, “certainly”, “literally”, “totally” and “virtually”, which people throw into their sentences — and often their conversation — because they don’t know what to say.

I could, of course, end this article with the advice: “If you were to really make the effort to take a close look at the content of your writing and further take the trouble to weed out any of those unnecessary connecting words that you might have used, you should be able to reduce the sticky sentences and make your narrative much more readable without losing the meaning of what you are trying to convey”. But if I had taken my own advice, I could instead simply end this column this way: “By reviewing content and removing needless words, you can improve readability without sacrificing meaning”. Got it?

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