Writers, purge these redundancies!

Today’s ‘writing’ teems with superfluous words and phrases. With attention spans short and time limited, readers (and listeners) seek brevity and clarity. Deliver.

I commute.

Not every day but a couple of mornings a week, I walk to the train station and catch the 7:50 (or occasionally the 8:20) and ride into Chicago.

At the station I hear this announcement:

“Metra commuters, your attention, please. An inbound train to Chicago is now arriving in your station. For your safety, please stand behind the yellow line until the train has come to a complete stop before boarding the train.”

So, every morning that I don’t work from home, I cringe. Here’s why:

“Metra commuters, your attention, please. (So far, so good.)

“An inbound train to Chicago (As opposed to an inbound train from Chicago?)

” … is now arriving (Gee, why not go all out and say it’s “in the process of” arriving? And I’m glad you announced it, because the lowered gates, the flashing lights, the clanging bells, and the enormous blue locomotive with the red-and-white-striped front lumbering toward us had us confused about what-all was happening.)

” … in your station. (Why would we give a tinker’s damn about its arrival anywhere else?)

“For your safety, please stand behind the yellow line (Whose safety but mine/ours would this benefit? Still, it’s nice that they care.)

” … until the train has come to a complete stop (As opposed to a partial stop? A slow roll? A feinted pause?)

” … before boarding the train.” (This is actually good advice, because so many people try to board while the train is moving and the doors are shut. Never mind that this syntax might suggest the train would be boarding itself. It’s just too Max Escher for that hour.)

At the end of the trip, this cheerful reminder is offered:

“Please remember to take your tickets and personal belongings.” (I defy this message. I take only my impersonal belongings. I’m a rebel.)

A world of tautologies

Such overwrought announcements are not specific to Chicago, of course. A friend who lives in our nation’s capital wrote to me:

“I have never been on an Amtrak train from New York to Washington and not heard the conductor announce Washington’s Union Station as the train’s ‘last and final stop.'”

Such iterations—the word “reiteration” is redundant—flood the vernacular. A couple of examples:

  • Hot water heater (Why would hot water need heating?)
  • Preheat the oven (No, just heat the oven, please.)

One more abomination from the kitchen is this heinous construction: “un-thaw” the turkey. What? That would mean to freeze it, no?

Do you enter your PIN number at the ATM machine? Well, stop it. PIN stands for personal identification number. ATM stands for automated teller machine. The latter drives me especially nuts, because an automated teller is a machine. So, ATM machine is doubly redundant.

Here’s another: “Please RSVP.” Three-quarters of RSVP is s’il vous plait (French for “please”). Don’t sound so desperate; one “please” will suffice.

Gilding the lilies

In offering advice, many writers—bloggers in particular—seek to Bedazzle their pearls of wisdom, so they add words they think will do the trick. The converse is true; the extra wording dilutes the message. Some culprits:

  • Be sure to …
  • It is important to remember that …
  • Never forget that …
  • There’s no denying that …
  • The truth is …
  • The fact of the matter is …

Along those lines are these sickly cousins:

  • Not surprisingly …
  • It is common wisdom/knowledge that …
  • Everyone recognizes/understands that …

Why tell people what they (and all around them) already know? Unless you’re going against the grain with innovative insights—as in, “Defying the common wisdom …”—omit those insomnia remedies.

There are also these auxiliary verb phrases that mask rather than enhance an action:

  • Were able to
  • Had the opportunity to
  • Decided to

I am able to eat a banana—in theory, anyway—and I certainly have had the opportunity to do so. (There’s a big bunch in our kitchen right now.) That doesn’t mean I ate a banana or will eat one in the near or distant future. I despise bananas. State what happened; don’t couch your meaning in needless phrases.

When and where

See whether you can pick out the needless words in the following:

  • The month of September
  • The year 2009
  • The city of New Orleans
  • The state of Idaho

Granted, the State of Idaho—that is, the government thereof—is an official body, an entity distinct from the territory itself. One doesn’t drive through (nor fly over) the State of Idaho.

As for the City of New Orleans, it is not only a municipal body, but also a train made famous in Arlo Guthrie’s hit recording (of Steve Goodman’s song) in the 1970s. You can ride along and “feel the wheels rumbling ‘neath the floor.”

Of course, when you reach your last and final destination, be sure to take all your personal belongings before exiting the train.

Rob Reinalda is executive editor at Ragan Communications.

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