The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is often cited as the classic text on writing English prose. One of the most famous imperatives from the book is:

Omit needless words.

This principle sounds almost self-evidently beneficial. If a word is needless, then we should be able to strike it out with no adverse effect, so why not go ahead? But I’ve come to believe that “Omit needless words” is in fact a recipe for needless suffering and confusion.

Strunk & White explain:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

The problem? To judge whether a word is truly needless might be harder than we think. In our zeal to omit needless words, we might conclude that a word is adding nothing to a sentence, and yet be wrong. That’s because sentences are complex things and so are the minds we use to interpret them. The logic that beckons us to remove a word is often based on an incomplete understanding of how the words in a sentence interact. As we will see, words that appear like dead weight can contribute in significant ways to the meaning and impact of a sentence. Keep cutting out the “unnecessary” words and you might do more damage than good.

Let’s look at the examples Strunk & White use to illustrate their maxim. They tell us the phrase “he is a man who” should always be compressed to “he.” So let’s consider a sentence that takes the wordier approach:

He is a man who steals.

If we are to omit needless words, we should rewrite this as:

He steals.

At first glance, it looks like we improved the sentence. The meaning stays the same and we’ve reduced our word count.

But to my ears, at least, those sentences have different connotations. The meaning has changed because we omitted some seemingly “needless” words.

“He steals” is a neutral statement. It informs us about the man’s actions without implying a judgement about his character. This guy could be Robin Hood for all we know.

But “He is a man who steals” puts us in the mood for judgement. The apparently needless verbiage “is a man who” is actually critical: it invites us to think about what kind of man this is. The idea that men belong to different categories is invoked here, but not in the shorter phrase. If our subject is the kind of man who steals, he’s probably not a good man – safe to assume?

Let’s take another example:

His story is a strange one.

Strunk & White prefer:

His story is strange.

Again, it seems virtuous to remove the excess, but in doing so, we change the connotation.

“His story is strange” suggests that what happened to the man is strange.

“His story is a strange one” suggests that these events make a strange kind of story.

It is like the difference between getting run over by a hovercraft (unlikely, but possible) and waking up to find you’ve become a cockroach (bizarre, unreal).

Now let’s take an example that illustrates “Omit needless words” together with “Put statements in positive form.” Strunk & White tell us to replace:

the fact that he had not succeeded


his failure

Indeed, we are supposed to excise “the fact that” wherever it occurs. Are those phrases really equivalent though? What if the guy in the sentence isn’t ready to give up? It would then be plausible to say:

The fact that he had not succeeded didn’t convince him of his failure.

Of course, we could shorten this to:

His failure didn’t convince him of his failure.

The first sentence leaves open the possibility that success might lie in the future, while the second suggests that the failure is definitive and the man simply refuses to admit it. Different meanings again.

So far, we’ve seen how “needless” words can change the rhetorical impact of a sentence by steering us down a different path of interpretation: for example, encouraging us to think about a category – a kind of man or story – instead of a specific instance. Another way “needless” words can affect the rhetorical impact of a sentence is by altering its rhythm. Words that seem needless might actually perform the vital role of keeping the beat.

Here are two rewrites Strunk & White propose, based on the idea that “who is” and “which was” are superfluous:

His brother, who is a member of the same firm

His brother, a member of the same firm

Trafalgar, which was Nelson’s last battle

Trafalgar, Nelson’s last battle

What is the result of cutting those words? When I speak the sentences out loud, I find the wordier versions are easier on the tongue. Why? Because “who is” and “which was” function here like pick-up notes in music, preparing us for an accented beat that follows. Take them out, and you bring the stressed words closer together. As a reader, I tend to compensate by leaving a longer pause after the comma, so that the stresses will be better separated, but such a pause can disrupt the flow of speech.

So what are we actually trying to optimize when we cut “needless” words? If we must pay per word, as in print publication where ink and paper are expensive, there’s an economic incentive to be terse. But people often assume that reducing word count is more than a way to save money, it’s also a way to save the reader’s time. Fewer words makes for quicker reading. That’s a fallacy.

When I read

His brother, who is a member of the same firm

the words “who is a” roll out quickly and almost bleed into the stressed word “member.” But when I read

His brother, a member of the same firm

the pause I’m inclined to take after the comma is a bit longer than the time it would take me to say “who is.” And without the pickup beats, the rhythmic similarity between “brother” and “member” comes to the foreground and sounds a bit clunky.

In this case, cutting those filler words makes for slightly slower, choppier reading.

So let’s avoid needless anguish when we edit our prose, diligently omitting “needless” words as The Elements implores, and then wondering what went wrong. Words that seem like slackers might be pulling their weight and more; omitting them is needless. ■

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