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Chapter XIV. Fullness And Brevity

§ 66. In any composition or unit of composition, the number of words may be too many for the purpose, or too few for the purpose, or just right for the purpose. Everything depends on the purpose. When a senator wants to kill time in the house, the more words to the thought, the better. When he wants to send a telegram, the fewer the better.

When there are too many words we speak of verbiage or verbosity or wordiness or surplusage or redundancy or prolixity or circumlocution or tautology or pleonasm. When there are too few we speak of poverty or paucity or meagreness or thinness or ellipsis. A paragraph may be so wordy that it is worthless. It may be so condensed that it is dense.

§ 67. Some persons tend to brevity. They are naturally laconic. We all admire the man of few words, if he is a man of action. The silent Moltke, the silent Grant, the silent Stonewall Jackson are splendid figures. They make the youth want to hold his tongue and grow up to be a man of deeds. They make him scorn the loquacious Sunday newspaper with its long accounts of how to succeed in business.

But after all, General Grant would hardly have made a good commercial traveler. And Stonewall's taciturnity was a serious handicap in some ways, for nobody but him knew his plans, and man is mortal.

When Grant was at last compelled to write a book, he wrote an extremely good one of its sort. It remains a model of simple, plain, and lucid English. Grant's habit of silence had given him a sense of the value of words. He was saved from what Hobbes called the frequency of insignificant speech. His long brooding on his subject enabled him to grasp it as a whole and in its parts. And, finally, the knowledge that the hand of death was upon him lent an effective brevity to what he wrote.

Brevity is a great virtue in business English, yet it may be overestimated. In some situations there must be skilful repetition. The reader's mind must be permitted to eddy around the subject. Once more, everything depends on the situation.

Brevity is a virtue even in the sentence. But we must not make a fetish of it. One has met fussy people who command you to sit - no more, no less; to say sit down is to be wordy. Such persons should reflect that in barbaric society even the word sit is superfluous. A gesture will do. If it doesn't, the fellow can stand. Yes, he can stand up. I have small sympathy with the people who worry because we eat up, eat down, drink up, drink down, and so on and so on. Must one never say great big dog because great equals big? Nay, it is a mark of man's overflowing vitality and sheer joy in emphasis to say great big dog.

But these are generalities. Let us come to practical tasks. And to begin with the smallest unit of composition, let us examine wordiness and ellipsis in the sentence.

§ 68. Wordiness in the sentence takes one of four forms - pleonasm, tautology, circumlocution, or prolixity. These are convenient rather than absolute distinctions.

Pleonasm means the presence of single words that are unnecessary to either the meaning or the structure of the sentence. I suppose that the following sentences would be improved by the omission of the bracketed words. There can be no doubt about the first one.

1. It is equally [as] good.

2. [There was] not one of them came.

3. That firm doesn't keep all [of] its promises.

4. Both Jones and Smith are [alike] good clerks.

5. Has your packing-case [got] your initials on it?

6. The smoke of Chicago is visible for miles [away].

7. There are scores of windows in [every part of] the factory.

8. It is a building of some twenty stories [in height].

9. Are there any more cases [left]? Not that I remember [of].

10. He regards Mr. Pierpont Morgan with [reverent] awe and respect

11. His name is worthy [enough] to be published.

12. He is extremely cautious, [and] so much so that he is suspicious.

Tautology is unnecessary repetition of the thought in slightly different words. It is often pleonastic.

1. The temperature was so high that we couldn't stay in the room, [it was so hot and close].

2. The [appearance of the] window presented a very attractive show.

3. Those percherons are fine big draft horses, [which would make fine horses for drawing loads].

4. The sight from the car was so fine that it made me [feel as if I wished] I were there already. (Substitute wish.)

5. The reason why I did it was [on account of] my necessity.

6. By a merciful combination of [fortuitous] circumstances, he escaped.

Many idiomatic expressions often called pleonastic or tautologons should be used. Meet with an accident, consult with, later on, first of all, opposite to me - these expressions are perfectly inoffensive. The with, on, of all and to are not necessary, but they are not wrong; and the omission of them rarely means a gain in force.

Circumlocution is a roundabout way of putting something that should be briefly expressed. The grave-digger's definition of "an act" is an example. You recall it, in Hamlet. Shakspere's Bardolph has a definition of accommodate which is sufficiently roundabout. Here is an example from a newspaper: "Though there are hundreds of persons who try to see if they are able to live by the histrionic profession, there are not more than a few who win an income of such adequate size that it permits those who win it to lay by from their labors for repairs." To do the newspapers justice, such a sentence is rare in journalism. It simply means, "Though hundreds of persons try to live by playacting, few earn enough to enable them to lay by for repairs."

Prolixity means spinning it out. It means telling it all. And, as the French say, the secret of being tedious is to tell it all.

§ 69. In the sentence, the fault of too few words may be called ellipsis. This means the omission of words that were really demanded by the sense or the construction. Of course, a sentence may lack body; it may need fuller phraseology, a more adequate phrasing of the thought. But by ellipsis we mean something a little simpler than that.


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