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WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE! My short, strong sentence can beat up your fancy long one

by Bernadette Kinlaw | August 10, 2020 at 1:59 a.m.

This week I'm going full-bore on long phrases that can so easily be shorter. I hope going full-bore doesn't make the topic a complete bore.

I've been out of college for decades now, but I still have the end-of-semester nightmare where I have to write a 1,000-word paper by the next morning. I decline to comment on whether I padded out sentences in those days.

But when I'm awake and living in the present, I fully advocate writing concisely.

I'm not alone in this belief.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab cautions that the best writing uses the best words. Sometimes it's OK to use more words if they're stronger. Doing so naturally is an art that takes practice. The site says, "The goal of concise writing is to use the most effective words. Concise writing does not always have the fewest words, but it always uses the strongest ones. Writers often fill sentences with weak or unnecessary words that can be deleted or replaced. Words and phrases should be deliberately chosen for the work they are doing. Like bad employees, words that don't accomplish enough should be fired. When only the most effective words remain, writing will be far more concise and readable."

A Stanford Engineering style guide says, "Writing clearly and concisely means choosing your words deliberately and precisely, constructing your sentences carefully to eliminate deadwood, and using grammar properly. By writing clearly and concisely, you will get straight to your point in a way your audience can easily comprehend."

The Writing Center at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers some specific tips.

Start by eliminating redundancies. Don't use two or more words when one will do.

What are your future plans? You can't plan your past, because it's already happened.

So, instead ask, What are your plans?

Do you need to pay someone a call? Or can you simply call them?

Do you need to shop for a new pair of pants? How about, I need to buy new pants. Finding a single pant would be hard, anyway.

Here are other redundant phrases. The words in italics can be removed, and the meaning would be the same.

added bonus

anticipate in advance

cease and desist

consensus of opinion

each and every

end result

free gift

new innovations

null and void

past history

plan ahead

regular routine

rough estimate

sum total

unexpected surprise

make full use of

take a dislike to

take a look at

Removing totally unneeded modifiers is really a big help in writing concisely.

Oops, I mean, Removing unneeded modifiers helps with concise writing.

The reason that sentences end up longer is that it takes too long to get to the conclusion you intend to reach.

Maybe: Sentences that are too long make your ending hazy.

I'll use some paraphrased examples from a few newspapers that I won't name.

One writer said lawmakers trained their attention on an Employment Commission.

Why not say lawmakers reviewed, looked at or studied?

The state expects it will be the end of August before all of these surveys are completed.

How about: Virginia doesn't expect the surveys to be completed until the end of August.

The university's decision to start charging campus visitors for weekday parking has sparked a barrage of criticism on social media from students and alumni.

Maybe: Students and alumni used social media to criticize the university's plan to charge campus visitors for weekday parking.

The official response to this criticism on parking was, "Should additional revenue be generated, it will be reinvested to maintain and improve parking operations and will be used to hold future user fees down."

How about: "We'll use any extra money we make to maintain parking operations and keep fees down."

Monroe, who spent about 29 years with Kodak, holding different senior positions, will be chair of the board of directors.


Monroe, who held senior positions in her 29 years with Kodak, will be chair of the board of directors.

The Stanford style guide discourages using fancy words, too. Paul Anderson, in his book "Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach," says studies show that "users comprehend straightforward words more quickly, even when they're familiar with a more elaborate counterpart."

Suicidality could be cases of suicide.

Why say initiate when you mean start?

Why say utilize when you mean use?

Here are examples of fancy words and simpler ones that could replace them:

ascertain — find out

commence — begin or start

constitute — make up

fabricate — build

terminate — end

And sentences don't shorten themselves. The writer has to work at trimming and strengthening. Many famous people have been credited with writing this truism: "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter."

Sources include Purdue University, Stanford University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Proofed, Quote Investigator. Reach Bernadette at

[email protected]


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