Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Without One Wasted Word

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Without One Wasted Word

Article excerpt

American journalists pioneered the crisp English that sets current standards for the language. Gone are the days when polite society preferred prose padded with circumlocution and fancied up with Victorian curlicues. Today, we recognize tight writing as good writing.

The modern form emerged from dispatches filed from the front during the Civil War, which is why one theory blames the transformation on Samuel Morse's newfangled telegraph. In an effort to save money and fit maximum news into rationed telegraph time, war correspondents supposedly invented the no-nonsense, get-right-to-it news story.

Maybe. But general improvements in transportation and communication are more likely culprits. As the country industrialized, the pace of daily life quickened and the flow of information increased. Readers, faced with more demands on their time and more information to sift, appreciated cleaner writing. Victorian excess faded. New standards called for eliminating every unnecessary word.

Now we count each failure to cut a superfluous word against a writer. The niggling redundancies that creep into published work brand their creators as thoughtless, hurried or brain dead. And certain redundancies have become well-known faux pas. Purists snicker when they read "the single most" or "filled to capacity" or "crisis situation."

Still, we continue to fill our prose to capacity with obvious redundancies, as these recently published examples illustrate:

* "We are, each in our own way, wrestling with the issue of change -- the single bigg'est issue of this new decade."

* "While that was more than any other single year of the decade .... "

* "Removing illegal profits from the drug trade by legalizing drugs was the single most frequent suggestion."

If it's the biggest, it's the single biggest. Or the single most. We can avoid a whole class of redundancies if we avoid modifying superlatives.

* ". . . who sat in the courtroom, which was packed to capacity with her supporters." Capacity is as full as something can get. If it's packed, it's packed to capacity.

* "Second, police do respond to dangerous situations. It's their job, and they do it .... In the Lents situation, residents are upset at repeated acts of vandalism .... "

All the writer needed to say was that police respond to danger and that Lents residents are upset at repeated vandalism. …

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