Concise language maximizes the effectiveness and readability of your writing. In this series, I present 4 handy tips for eliminating wordiness: avoid redundancy, remove embellishments, condense long phrases, and use active voice. In each post, I describe a rule, provide some examples of how to apply it in order to make your writing more concise, and (crucially) explain when it does not apply. This post is Part 1: Avoid Redundancy.
Remove any words or phrases that can be eliminated without changing the meaning of the text. This applies not only to repeated phrases and statements (which are often obvious) but also to individual words with overlapping meaning (which are much trickier to spot).
Consider the following sentence:
Six different students are currently collaborating together, and once they have tried and successfully reached a full consensus, they will present their overall conclusions.
This sentence sounds okay to many untrained ears, but it has numerous redundancies—and it sounds much better without them! Before we return to this sentence, let's look at the main categories of redundancies, with examples of each (words that can be omitted are underlined):
Meaning implied by context: three different (or several different), are both alike (or ...are all alike), 4 a.m. in the morning, and so on
Meaning implied by verb tense: has been previously found, will be done in the future, is currently happening, and so on
Idiomatic redundancies: tried and succeeded (or tried and failed, etc.), the reason is because, period of time, sum total, one and the same, and so on
Adverbs that repeat the meaning of the verbs they modify: join together, briefly summarize, return back, first discovered, plan ahead, and so on
Modifiers of absolute terms: totally perfect, absolutely necessary, fully unanimous, exactly the same, and so on
Adjectives that repeat the meaning of the nouns they modify: overall conclusion, free gift, end result, final destination, close proximity, vital importance, and so on
Now, let's go through the redundancies in the main example:
Six different students: In nearly all cases, it is redundant to write "different" after a number (or a quantity word, as in "many different"). The context usually makes clear that the counted objects/people are different. In this case, it wouldn't make sense for any of the students to be the same; they must be different, so that word should be omitted. Category: "Meaning implied by context"
are currently collaborating: This sentence's verb tense* already expresses that the event is happening now, so the word "currently" is redundant. (This word is very often redundant, so check yourself before you use it in any situation!) Category: "Meaning implied by verb tense"
tried and ... reached: Though phrases starting with "tried and" are common, they do not usually add meaning. The verb that follows "tried and" should be used alone in most cases. Category: "Idiomatic redundancies"
successfully reached a ... consensus: Typically, when an action has been successfully completed, that is already clear from the verb, so you usually don't need the word "successfully." Category: "Adverbs that repeat the meaning of the verbs they modify"
full consensus: "Consensus" is an absolute term, so it cannot take modifiers—you either have a consensus or you do not. Modifiers of such terms are either redundant (as in this case) or contradictory (as in "partial consensus"). Either way, such modifiers should be avoided. Category: "Modifiers of absolute terms"
overall conclusions: A conclusion, by definition, is based on all the preceding information, so "overall" is not necessary. Category: "Adjectives that repeat the meaning of the nouns they modify"
Here is the same sentence in a more concise form:
Six students are collaborating, and once they have reached a consensus, they will present their conclusions.
* This tense is called the "present continuous" or "present progressive," but you don't need to know that.
In spoken English, small redundancies such as the one in the main example above are common—and rarely a problem! Spoken English is typically extemporaneous, and few people will begrudge small redundancies or quibble over a few added words in speech. (Though there may be exceptions, as in a formal speech based on a script.) Likewise, informal written English can tolerate minor redundancies, though I'd recommend avoiding repetitive statements even when, say, composing emails to a friend. Not even your friends want to read the same statement more than once!
As for the main focus of this blog, formal writing, watch for corner cases in which a seemingly redundant word is actually necessary for clarity. For instance, you may need to add "different" after a number to contrast with a set of the same items, as in this example:
The Lopez family replaced the four identical picture frames with four different ones.
In addition, redundancy may be necessary to ensure parallel structure:
Napoleon was diminutive in stature but imposing in intellect.
In formal writing, I'd recommend avoiding the use of redundancy merely for emphasis, as forceful language alone should provide plenty of emphasis. However, doing so may be acceptable, depending on the audience and the intent. Here is a sentence that could be acceptable with redundancy and a version of it that has been rephrased to provide the emphasis in another way:
Jaime tried and tried to solve the equation but ultimately failed.
Jaime failed despite repeated attempts to solve the equation.
The former version could be acceptable, but the latter version will be, so it is stronger overall. Before finalizing the use of redundancy for emphasis, please first try to achieve the same goal using another phrasing. The results could be more concise and/or more effective.
I hope this overview helps you to eliminate pesky redundant phrases from your writing. Thank you for reading, and please come back soon for Part 2: Remove Embellishments.