Have you noticed that politicians, when pretending to give fulsome answers, stuff their sentences with needless words?
The likes of: “At this present moment in time”, which means “now”. Or: “We intend to implement a wide range of options right across the board”, which means “we will”. (Although they rarely do.)
I prefer newspaper English. When I started in a newsroom, editors demanded maximum information in the fewest number of words. Pleonasm was an enemy.
This demanded spartan writing. Few adjectives, no florid metaphors. Rapid-fire English in filleted sentences that thrummed with facts. Sub-editors were proud of their ability to curtate copy. Old heads used to say even The Bible could be distilled to two paragraphs, yet retain the essential story and meaning.
I admire a scene-setting descriptive sentence, redolent of adjectival indulgence, as much as anyone. Some scented sentences let you smell the flowers. But often I itch to strike out needless words.
If there is an option, I use the shorter one. Flammable, not inflammable. Among, not amongst. While not whilst. Inquiry not enquiry (damn those who insist there is a nuance in meaning). Picture captions started “from left”, not “from left to right”. I’d never put a double space between sentences, as some letter writers and typists do.
Did you know a semi-colon is wider than a comma? Or in some fonts a capital M is narrower than a lower-case m? In the days of hot metal type there was a finite width to a line. Sometimes a hairsbreadth made a difference. The letters couldn’t be “squeezed” to 95% width by a computer. Space between letters couldn’t be kerned as modern digital typesetting allows. These are forms of cheating.
The quest for concision meant words from other languages, especially those that used logograms such as Japanese, were interpreted in the shortest way imaginable. Tokio instead of Tokyo (I is narrower than Y). Pekin not Peking. Bagdad not Baghdad.
Once you had excised all extraneous material, but the copy was still long, you cut facts starting with the least important. There was no choice, newspapers could hardly have an extension to the page. It’s very different to today, with endless space on internet screens. Newspaper English is becoming rare. I read some articles and have to remind myself I’m looking at a news report not a novel. I ache to tell TV reporters to stop waffling.
Brevity lasts longer than it used to.
Word of the week
The use of more words than are necessary to convey meaning. EG: “You might argue a whole column about brevity is a pleonasm.”
Read the latest Oh my word! every Saturday in The Courier. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org