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 3: Condense Long Phrases.
Condense Long Phrases
If a prepositional phrase, expletive, or other construction makes a sentence unnecessarily long, rephrase the sentence without that construction.
Consider the following sentence, which is grammatical but quite wordy. Can you think of any ways to shorten it?
There are several explanations that can be considered at the present time, so I will have a focus on testing the validity of each theory using methods that are thorough and effective.
Before we return to correct the sentence, let's consider the most common types of constructions that result in overlong phrases. Unless otherwise stated, the examples can be shortened by removing the underlined text:
Expletives*: No, I'm not referring to curse words. These are constructions start with "it" or "there," followed by a "be" verb ("is," "was," etc.), a noun, and a relative pronoun ("that," "which," or "who"). Examples include there are several steps that are, it is the vice president who decides, and there will be three pictures that will show.
Roundabout expressions: At the current time (just say "Now" or omit entirely), with the intent to (or say "for"), At that point in time ("Then"), owing to the fact that ("because"), on the occasion of ("when"), with regard to ("regarding" or "about"), has the opportunity to ("can"), and so on
Noun forms of verbs: The intention of the researchers is to (shorten to "The researchers intend to"), The function of this program is the education of new parents ("This program serves to educate new parents" or just "This program educates new parents"), and so on
"Of" phrases used as possessives: The goal of the project (just say "The project's goal"), The focal point of the room ("The room's focal point"), The first chapter of the novel ("The novel's first chapter"), and so on
Prepositional phrases that can just be adjectives: The senators from the Midwest (say "The Midwestern senators"), A solution with a red color ("A red solution"), some presents for Christmas ("some Christmas presents"), and so on
Now, let's go through the example sentence to see how we can make it more concise:
There are several explanations that can: This is an expletive, so "there are" and "that" should be removed (leaving "Several explanations can" in this case). These constructions are always wordy and should be avoided. Category: "Expletives"
at the present time: We could shorten this to "now," but even that word is not necessary. As we learned in the previous post in this series, time markers such as "now" are often superfluous because the verb tense contains the same information. Thus, we can remove the entire phrase. Category: "Roundabout expressions"
I will have a focus: This can easily be shortened to "I will focus." Category: "Noun forms of verbs"
the validity of each theory: In many cases, it is better to use a possessive (with an apostrophe and "s") instead of a prepositional phrase. (There are some exceptions; see below.) For instance, this is more concisely expressed as "each theory's validity." Category: "'Of phrases used as possessives"
methods that are thorough and effective: The preposition here serves no purpose; it's stronger to just say "thorough and effective methods." Category: "Prepositional phrases that can just be adjectives"
Here is the shortened sentence:
Several explanations can be considered, so I will focus on testing each theory's validity using thorough and effective methods.
You can see how much more effective the sentence becomes after condensing a few phrases.
*Generally, I try to avoid relying on grammar jargon such as this, but it is useful in this case to have simple descriptor. Expletives are very common but are not easy to describe.
If you are writing informally or creatively, then the roundabout expressions listed above can add distinctiveness to your text (when used judiciously). In formal contexts, though, the shorter terms are better.
Although expletives should never be used, regardless of context, it is important to consider that similar-looking expressions are often acceptable. Take the previous sentence as an example: "it is important to consider that" is fine; it is not an expletive because there is no noun. Similarly, "There are three children in the park" has no issues; it does not contain a relative pronoun such as "that."
In some cases, including in formal contexts, it is clearer to use "of" instead of a possessive. For instance, it is awkward to use possessives with compounds, so rephrasing using "of" is helpful. See these alternatives:
The jawbones of the tiger, the leopard, and the lion are remarkably similar.
The tiger's, the leopard's, and the lion's jawbones are remarkably similar.
The former version is slightly less concise, but the latter version will sound slightly off to many readers because of the repeated possessives. When expressing a thought involving more than one "possessors," considering using the "of" phrasing to ensure clarity; otherwise, you'll usually be better off using the possessive form with the apostrophe-"s."
Remember: Clarity is more important than conciseness! If you need to add an extra word or two to ensure that an expression is clear, don't worry about it. Just don't add unnecessary words. I hope that this has been helpful. Please leave a comment or email me at email@example.com if you have any questions or would like me to check one of your documents for wordiness issues. Thanks for reading!