On Omitting Needless Words

I have three copies of The Elements of Style by William Stunk, Jr. and E. B. White. One of them is a hardcover, published in the last decade or so, with illustrations. I rarely open it. I think it is still at my office, a place I don’t go often these days. I should it bring it home with me the next time I am there.

Another is a small paperback in relatively good shape. That’s the one I’ll page through when I want or need to consult the book. It seems as if it will fall apart eventually but for now it is usable. It has the handwritten name of someone I don’t know on its title page. I don’t remember where I got it. I assume a used book store.

This is the third copy:

The name on the cover, if you cannot read it, is Beatrice K. Bossert. My maternal grandmother. On the inside of the cover, it reads:

Property of Beatrice K. Bossert

R. 1

Hartford, Wis.

Many of my older books were once hers, including a collection of everything Mark Twain wrote and various other books about literature and writing. She was once an English teacher.

I cannot remember the first time I read The Elements of Style, but I am fairly certain it was not until after I read Stephen King’s On Writing. If I remember correctly, I already had a copy of it—maybe two maybe both of the aforementioned paperbacks—but I wasn’t inspired to read The Elements of Style until after King mentioned it in the Second Foreword to On Writing, saying:

This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit… One notable exception to the bullshit rule is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White….Rule 17 in the chapter title Principles of Composition is “Omit needless words.” I will try to do that here.

-Stephen King, On Writing

I think I was around 14 I first read it. On Writing came out in 2000 and I know that I read it as a hardcover, shortly after its release. I had recently read him for the first time, starting with The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, a story about a girl lost in the woods.

But this is not about Stephen King. This is the first blog post on a new website dedicated to that 13th rule from Chapter II of The Elements of Style—or, wait.

I just referred to it as the 13th rule. King said it was the 17th. But both copies of The Elements of Style that I have within reach list it as the 13th rule under “Elementary Principles of Style” (which King lists as “Principles of Style.”) I cannot explain this, although it’s possible King and I have books from different floors of the Tower.

Starting again: this is a new website dedicated to the 13th rule of the second chapter of The Elements of Style.

Two copies of the book in question.

Perhaps there is no reason to elaborate on a rule like omit needless words, but Strunk and White choose to:

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.

-William Strunk, Jr. & E. B. White, The Elements of Style

Or: omit needless words.

What I intend to explore here is examples of such needless words. Filler words, cluttering words, words that take up space and offer nothing.

A word’s purpose depends on the sentence it is in. I will not dispute that. But some words can be lost altogether. Others should be used sparingly. A word can be the master-of-ceremonies in one sentence and an gatecrasher in another. In my efforts to improve my writing, I have identified words that I would like to go without and other words that I would like to use rarely.

Words like actually or clearly or inexorably, words like quite or very, words like utilize, phrases like the fact that or the matter at hand.

Words that hedge where others double down.

And in this theme, I will end my first entry here.

Ready to keep reading? The first needless word discussed is Actually.

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