A Few Words on Few Words

Brevity is the Soul of Wit. Endeavor to be Brief. Believe It.

Eschew surplusage.

We would all be better writers if we took Mark Twain’s exemplary advice.

Good writers strive to use words sparingly. Press releases, Tweets, Facebook entries, and emails all benefit if we are stingy and deadly accurate when choosing words to compose sentences.

Writers often become wordy because they are inaccurate. Twain also advised use “the right word, not its second cousin.” Good advice, because if you don’t select the right word, you end up with second cousins.

Twain’s recommendations say more about editing than writing.

For most of us, writing is a three-step process. First we write a draft. A second step is to fill in examples and references, develop ideas and arrange the draft.

It is counterproductive to dwell on grammar while being creative, so the third step is editing. Before fixing grammar problems, I suggest editing for wordiness. Go through the text and remove every word that can be removed. Ironically, subtracting words makes writing more clear, not less clear.

Writers who heed this advice also avoid most of the common grammar pitfalls: run-on sentences, redundancies, wordiness, passive voice, and sentences ending with prepositions. (A proposition is something you should never end a sentence with.)

In the ancient study of rhetoric, tactics for leaving out connecting words and abbreviating sentences were called schemes of omission. Asyndeton is the scheme for leaving out connecting words. Science Fiction author Ursula Le Guin uses asyndeton to good effect when she says, “‘Light is the left hand of darkness and darkness the right hand of light.”

Ellipsis refers to dropping any word that isn’t necessary for meaning. Expressions like, “good eye,” “I’ll be,” or “I never,” for instance. College students beware. This scheme may tempt humorless English instructors to penalize you for sentence fragments.

Examples of brevity abound. The King James translation of the Bible punctuates the scene at the tomb of Lazarus with a two-word verse: “Jesus wept.”

Julius Caesar was famous for his terse writing style. Early in his career he dispatched an uprising in Eastern Europe and sent a letter to the Roman Senate saying, “I came; I saw; I conquered.” His last words, according to Shakespeare, were also brief and to-the-point: “Et tu, Brute.”

Moby Dick is one of the longest novels in American Literature, but it starts with a three-word sentence: “Call me Ishmael.”

No one was ever briefer than U.S. General Anthony Clement McAuliffe. In 1944, McAuliffe’s 101st Airborne Division was surrounded by the German army in the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans sent McAuliffe a wordy ultimatum: “The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units… There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note…” The German ultimatum contained 165 words.

McAuliffe’s reply? “Nuts.” The Americans dug in and were rescued. It’s idiomatic.

All the most memorable quotes from movies are pithy. Clint Eastwood said, “Read my lips.” Jack Nicholson said, “Heeere’s Johnny.” And Arnold said, “I’ll be back.”

In the 19th century the telegraph and the newspaper put a price on words. To be succinct was to be frugal. Editors want reporters and press release writers to cram entire news stories into one line called a lead. Lead sentences tell who, what, where, when and why.

Thankfully, news style influences almost all business writing. Who would have time to read email if all writing was the style of the German surrender ultimatum?

Brevity is the soul of wit. Endeavor to be brief. Believe it.

Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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