In one of his six rules for writers, George Orwell said: ‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.’ Shorter is better, he was saying. Using more words than necessary to express ourselves can make for bad writing and be confusing to the reader.
While Orwell was referring to clarity in technical and political writing, there are many everyday sentences and phrases which also contain unnecessary words.
In this post we will look at some common examples of words which, in certain cases, should be deleted. (Incidentally, the term for using a word which adds no extra meaning to a sentence is pleonasm. When we use a word which simply repeats the meaning of another word, it is called tautology. In both cases the unnecessary word is redundant and should be deleted.)
1. years’ time
He intends to retire in three years’ time.
‘Time’ is redundant here and can be deleted. The sentence says nothing that ‘He intends to retire in three years’ doesn’t say. Adding ‘time’ only increases the chance of forgetting to use the apostrophe after ‘years’.
2. the reason why
The number of crimes is increasing but detectives don’t know the reason why.
For some people, ‘the reason why’ is acceptable in the middle of a sentence. However, ‘why’ is clearly redundant after ‘reason’ when placed at the end of a sentence, as in the above example. Either remove ‘why’, or delete ‘reason’ and write ‘detectives don’t know why’.
3. whether or not
I don’t know whether or not he’s coming.
This is a similar problem to ‘reason why’. It is sufficient to write or say ‘I don’t know whether he’s coming.’
4. currently + being done
The bridge is currently being repaired.
The word ‘currently’ is both unnecessary and incorrect here. The present continuous passive structure ‘is being repaired’ tells us that the action is taking place now. Including ‘currently’ merely repeats that.
Alternatively, we could say ‘The bridge is currently under repair.’
5. past experience
Research has shown that past experience helps us make complex decisions.
The word ‘past’ should be removed. This error is surprisingly common, even in serious publications. ‘Past history’ and ‘past tradition’ are similar examples.
6. the mark / the level
Turnover fell below the two million pounds mark.
It is enough to write ‘Turnover fell below two million pounds.’ By adding ‘mark’ we are simply putting a redundant word on the end of the sentence.
7. estimated at about
Profit is estimated at about 10 million pounds.
In essence, ‘estimate’ and ‘about’ have the same meaning. Write either ‘is estimated at 10 million pounds’ or ‘is estimated to be 10 million pounds’.
8. very unique
Whitney Houston had a very unique voice.
Something cannot be ‘very unique’, not even Whitney’s voice. Things are either unique or they are not unique.
9. the old adage
As the old adage says: don’t burn your bridges.
By definition an adage is always old. In terms of its age, it can be nothing but old. Say only ‘the adage’.
10. think to myself
I thought to myself how strange it seemed.
And that is a very strange thing to write. After all, who else can we think to other than to ourselves? Make it ‘I thought how strange it seemed.’
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