Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ineffectual phrases, repeater phrases, and other enemies of good writing

They may look so irresistibly apt and handy at first blush, but beware, many stock phrases in English can do more harm than good to your writing! I am referring to those common expressions that, rather than give finesse to your English, can make it sound fluffy, pretentious, or irritatingly redundant. They are (1) the so-called ineffectual phrases, (2) the many wordy phrases formed by habitual nominalization, (3) the repeater phrases, and (4) those mind-numbing verbose expressions that often infest journalistic reporting.

In “A sorry trail of wasted words,” a four-part series of essays that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2005, I discussed how these undesirable stock phrases can make English expositions an unpleasant reading or listening experience. I am posting the fourth essay here to give you a better idea why we need to banish these stock phrases from our written and spoken English. (June 18, 2011)     

A sorry trail of wasted words

Some stock phrases in English are inherently undesirable because they are too wordy and only tend to give a false depth and emphasis to what is being said. These expressions, which are called ineffectual phrases, don’t really add value to speech or writing; worse, they make their users sound fluffy or pretentious without meaning to. The best policy is therefore to avoid these phrases altogether and to routinely use their more concise equivalents.

Here are some of the most common of these ineffectual phrases, along with the more concise words for them: “as a matter of fact” (“actually”), “for the purpose of” (“for”), “in the near future” (“soon”), “in the event that” (“if”), “in the eventuality that” (“if”), “with the exception of” (“except”), “in conjunction with” (“and”), “due to the fact that” (“because”), “by virtue of the fact that” (“because”), “on account of the fact that” (“because”), “owing to the fact that” (“because”), “in view of the fact that” (“since,” “because”), “in the absence of” (“without”), “is (was) of the opinion that” (“thinks that,” “thought that”), “as regards” (“about”), “with regard to” (“about”), “with respect to” (“about”), “it is interesting to note that” (just drop it), “needless to say” (just drop it), and “when all is said and done” (just drop it).

Another pitfall we must guard against is getting into the habit of converting verbs into wordy phrases built around a nominalization, in the mistaken belief that this makes a statement look or sound more important and impressive. On the contrary, many phrases built around nominalizations not only make sentences longer and annoyingly obtuse but also obscure the idea being presented.

Here are some common wordy phrases that result from habitual nominalization, along with their simple verb equivalents: “take action on” (“act”), “give consideration to” (“consider”), “engage in the preparation of” (“prepare”), “conduct a discussion” (“discuss”), “make an assumption that” (“assume that”), “make a discovery of” (“discover”), “do (perform) an analysis of” (“analyze”), “result in a reduction” (“reduce”), and “reach a conclusion about” (“conclude”). When “–ion” words like these begin to mushroom in our writing or speech, it’s time to identify all of the needless nominalizations among them and make them revert to their active verb forms. In well-written prose, only a few truly useful nominalizations normally survive this denominalization process.

Wordiness also often results from habitual use of what are called repeater phrases. These are words commonly used together yet actually mean the same thing, forming tautologies. Of course, the problem can be remedied by simply dropping the extraneous words in the repeater phrase, but we need to cultivate a strong sensitivity to the repetition that often hides so well in such phrases.

Here are some common repeater phrases and their concise equivalents: “close proximity” (“close”), “new innovation” (“innovation”), “added bonus” (“bonus”), “exactly the same” (“the same”), “prior experience” (“experience”), “revert back” (“revert”), “minute detail” (“detail”), “close scrutiny” (“scrutiny”), “combine together” (“combine”), “surrounded on all sides” (“surrounded”), “free gift” (“gift”), “temporary reprieve” (“reprieve”), “exact replica” (“replica”), and “future plans” (“plans”).

Finally, we would all be spared from so much aggravation as readers and listeners if newspapers and the broadcast media only took a much more serious effort to rid their news and feature reportage of such numbing journalese as these: “placed under arrest” (“arrested”), “made good their escape” (“escaped”), “escaped injury” (“was not injured”), “kicked off the campaign” (“began the campaign”), “hammered out—or, worse, “forged”—an agreement” (“agreed”), “put in an appearance” (“appeared”), “razed to the ground” (“razed”), “last-ditch attempt” (“final attempt”), and “left in its wake a wide swath of destruction” (“caused so much destruction”). (November 7, 2005)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, November 7, 2005 © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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