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The Word-Parsimony Fallacy

The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more often likely to be foolish than sensible.

—Bertrand Russell

It is essential that we get rid of some of the detritus of inept guides to writing, and we will start with what we call:

I. The Word-Parsimony Fallacy.

This is the notion that good writers mostly try to use as few words as possible to make their point, an argument that sounds better than it really is.  Every teacher has pared away the inessential words from students’ essays and discovered that sometimes little or nothing remains.  This seems to lead to the belief that that writing is best that is whittled down the most.  On an Internet site:

“The fewer words you use, the more powerful your sentences are. The word ‘steak’ is much more concise and powerful than ‘a great big piece of meat’. The more you say in [the?] fewest amount of words the more you communicate in a shorter amount of time which will result in a greater impact. Often we get caught up in specifics that are only objective observations that do not hold much meaning for others. You might think your character ‘whispered daintily’ but is it really worth watering down your prose for that. Whispers are always dainty.”

no attribution available1 Your humble editor searched for a source while preparing this essay for republication. Imagine my surprise when the only other place I found these words was in the comments under a post on a political philosophy blog, and attributed to Mr. Barber’s original website

The author has achieved something truly astounding here: putting more blither into a single paragraph than even a good writer, trying to write blither, could stuff into so few words.  Evelyn Waugh would have been proud to have written this paragraph, although if he had, it would have been ironic.  So we will have to content ourselves with only a brief consideration of its argument:

“Steak” may be concise, but it’s certainly not “powerful” all by itself.  “A great big piece of meat” is no great shakes either, but a competent writer could do better than that.  More important, all diction is location-specific.  So let’s imagine that a writer had only these two possibilities at his disposal, and he/she had to write the following scene:

A young lady shows up at a vegetarian banquet, but unbeknownst to her the banquet has been moved to a much smaller hall, and the gigantic hall she has sat down in has actually been taken over by the CGOA [Competitive Gorgers of America] Society, who need a lot of space.

When the meal comes, a waiter sets down either a steak or a large piece of meat in front of her.  “Steak” is impossibly weak here; “large piece of meat” is a little better.  But the scene demands something like, “a great mass of half-raw flesh oozing a runny pink substance and surrounded by gobbets of dead sea-creatures.”

We won’t insist on our version; for one thing, just writing it has ruined our appetite.  But it should be obvious that what is needed here is expansion, not contraction.  And the words, to have impact, have to be chosen precisely because they are not typically used in this environment.  Steak houses don’t have “seared cow and toasted sea-creatures” on the menu.  Diction is not like basketball, where you try to throw a ball through a hoop rather than really really close to the hoop.  It is more like baseball, where the pitcher tries to create something that looks enough like a pitch for the batter to swing at it.

The last remark in the quoted passage simply makes no sense but has the advantage that you can find out for yourself if it is true.  Are whispers always dainty?  Asked to search for “whispered hoarsely,” Google came up with about 1,630,000 results; searching for “whispered fiercely,” it came up with only about 672,000 results.  We got caught up in this issue and determined that, on the Internet, people have whispered desultorily, randily, conspiratorily, heavily (4,900 hits!), bizarrely, foolishly, daringly, happily, and greedily.  In fact, for a long time we couldn’t find an adverb that didn’t go with “whispered” somewhere in cyberspace.  This became a challenge.  Eventually we determined that no one had whispered obtusely, at least as far as Google knew, and for two days made a nuisance of ourselves by whispering obtusely to a friend every once in a while, only to discover that all the while she had thought we were whispering annoyingly.

On another Internet site, an author “improves” the following passage by removing words:  “Bill stepped out to look at the new car Joe had just pulled up in. It was shining, its metallic blue paint sparkling and glinting in the hot afternoon sun like a freshly cut diamond.”

The new version:  “Bill stepped outside to see Joe’s car pull up at the kerb. Its paint sparkled in the afternoon sun.”

The author then says, “We’ve gone from 35 to 19 words.  Almost half!”

We don’t like to brag, but we can do much better than this: “Bill saw Joe’s new car.”  Five words!  Down to one-seventh!  And our sentence is now so—umm, compact?

Now, given that the author starts out with a passage that has little to recommend it, we might applaud the effort to make it shorter.  But making something shorter doesn’t make it good.  If it did, the Los Angeles Clippers would play only half of each of their games—oh, wait, they already do that.

No competent writer sees it as his or her primary task to cut words to a minimum. That may be an editorial requirement, but it has nothing to do with either rhetoric or communication.  If a restaurant did this, the waiter would present you with three ingredients and a vitamin pill.

But if writers don’t do this, then why do so many teachers and books on writing insist on it?  The reason is that it sounds as if it makes sense.  There are many uninformed opinions in this world that are believed not because they are true but because they seem plausible or promise to solve difficult problems.  Countless people believe that every disease must be a pill-deficit of some sort, simply because it would be so very convenient if you could cure your cancer simply by taking a pill, instead of having yourself poisoned and irradiated and losing your hair and then dying anyway.

And when everyone knows something, no one needs to examine it.  Instead, we elaborate on it.  The word-parsimony theory, for example, seems so plausible that people come up with bizarre and irrational expressions of it.  We culled this one from a fine book on journalism: “Never use two words when one will serve better.”  This is surely true, even self-evident, but its reverse is equally true: “Never use one word when two words will serve better.”  It’s also true that you should never use seven words when 500 will serve better.

At the beginning of Bleak House, Dickens uses close to 500 words to say something that could be summarized as follows: “The weather in London was really crappy.”

Now Dickens was seemingly a competent fellow, so why was he so verbose?  It’s because he understood that saving words isn’t like saving money.  If you save and invest money, you have something left for your old age, but the words you save by being brief can’t be used to buy stocks and bonds, and banks won’t accept them.

The real issue in writing is not fewest words but greatest impact.  To state the matter bluntly, it doesn’t matter how many words you use if your reader doesn’t reach for the dreaded bookmark.

Reader goes on reading: good.  Reader gets bored: bad.

This is not to say that everything should be written the way Dickens wrote the opening paragraphs of Bleak House.  If you have a subject the reader wants to know about, you would do well to put something besides lively language into your text.  Ideas and data and analysis will do.  But if you’re writing fiction, then you’d better master the art of making the language itself into the entertainment, without sacrificing everything to brevity.

But don’t just take our word for this: instead, find well-written passages in literature and see if you can’t reduce the number of words in them without sacrificing any meaning.  More to the point, see what a mess you’ve made once you’ve applied the word-parsimony standard to something written well.  (But don’t waste time trying this with the first sentence in Moby-Dick.)

“Brevity is the soul of wit.”

—Polonius, the wordiest character in Hamlet.

“Word-parsimony is the inflamed gall-bladder of style.”

—Lady Fancy That, in Torkulweef’s Corner

Originally published in another dementia on June 28, 2011