Archive for the ‘Language Talk’ Category

The Evils of Wordiness

Posted: December 23, 2013 in Language Talk
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George Orwell is best known for his politically-oriented novel 1984 and the equally polemical Animal Farm. Perhaps unbeknownst to most, he also wrote six simple rules for effective writing. These oft-quoted principles are the tenets of good communication, and should always be held dear:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.

Granted, it not always wise to abide by these rules in the examination hall. A 5** student must flaunt such phrases as ‘put the cart before the horse’ and ‘beard the lion in his den’ in his or her writing. There is perhaps no geography teacher that will encourage the fifth rule, for ‘strata’ is always superior to ‘layers’, and ‘ecological equilibrium’ to ‘natural balance’. In fact, the fourth rule is not always true: the passive voice, in the right situations, enhance the writing. In the same essay where he introduced the rules, he wrote, ‘you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious’.

Exceptions notwithstanding, these general rules should be held close to our hearts every time we pick up our pens. Blithe disregard of these rules is a crime. This quote from an ICT textbook is a case in point:

On some occasions, using graphics is usually a more effective means of communication than using text only. Common examples of graphics include: photographs, drawings, line art, diagrams and, maps, etc.

Heavens! This excerpt is not only wordy and redundant, but also self-contradictory – the frequency indicators ‘on some occasions’ and ‘usually’ are semantically distinct. Here is my version:

Graphics often communicate more effectively than pure text. Examples of graphics include photographs, line art, diagrams and maps.

A cut of 1/3 of the words may seem inconsequential, but would you rather read a 200-page book or a 300-page one with the same content?

Maybe some will argue that non-fiction authors are not obligated to write like Orwell. That is not true; even scientific literature can be written well. Consider this quote from A Geography of Hong Kong:

Hong Kong, despite its limited area of 1,060 km2, shows marked spatial variations in relief and topography. To some extent this reflects the diversity in its assemblage of landforms and associated features. Within relatively short distances the change of relief is not only frequent but is also quite abrupt. Rugged hills on upland terrains contrast with the level grounds of the valley floors from which the terrains rise steeply. Remnants of the staircase-like erosion surfaces providing breaks of slope survive side by side with plunging slope profiles. Pocket interfluvial basins sandwiched between projecting shoulders of ranges overlook the open, less contracted, low-lying flood plains. Relief features of these contrasting categories thus emphasise the third dimension of the topography.

Crisp, concise, and crystal clear. If all our textbooks were written like this, I doubt Hong Kong’s TOEFL scores would still lag behind Japan and Korea.