5.2. Avoiding The Superfluous Word
From "Choice Of Words" in Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

"A reader of Milton must be always upon duty; he is surrounded with sense, it arises in every line, every word is to the purpose; there are no lazy intervals, all has been considered, and demands and merits observation. Even in the best writers you sometimes find words and sentences which hang on so loosely you may blow 'em off; Milton's are all substance and weight; fewer would not have serv'd the turn, and more would have been superfluous." — Jonathan Richardson, quoted By F. E. Hutchinson in Milton and the English Mind, p. 137

THE fault of verbiage (which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "abundance of words without necessity or without much meaning") is too multiform for analysis. But certain classifiable forms of it are specially common, and in this Chapter we will examine some of these, ending with a rather indeterminate class which we will call "padding", to pick up what has been left outside the others.

Excessive Use Of Adjectives And Adverbs
Palmerston(16) wrote of one of Her Majesty's Ministers abroad who had neglected an admonition to go through all his despatches and strike out all words not necessary for fully conveying his meaning:

"If Mr. Hamilton would let his substantives and adjectives go single instead of always sending them forth by twos and threes, his despatches would be clearer and easier to read".

Adjectives and adverbs should only be used where they contribute something to the sense. The question is under active consideration does not, or should not, mean anything more than that it is under consideration. Nor can one suppose that the adverb in the circular quoted for other purposes on later — "(Local) Authorities should be definitely discouraged from committing themselves" — would make any difference to the official who has to carry it out; the distinction between discouraging a Local Authority definitely and merely discouraging it is too subtle for most of us. Certain forms of this fault are so common that they call for mention.

One of them I described thus in an address given to a private audience in 1943. Speaking of a "curious shrinking from the use of adjectives unadorned by adverbs", I said:

"It is as though they were naked and indecent and must hastily have an adverbial dressing-gown thrown around them. The most indecent adjectives are, it seems, those of quantity or measure such as short and long, many and few, heavy and light. The adverbial dressing-gowns most favoured are unduly, relatively and comparatively. These adverbs can only properly be used when something has been mentioned or implied which gives a standard of comparison. But we have all seen them used on innumerable occasions when there is no standard of comparison. They are then meaningless. Their use is merely a shrinking from the nakedness of an unqualified statement. If the report of a raid says that about a hundred people were taken to hospital but comparatively few were detained, that is a proper use of the adverb. But when a circular says that 'our diminishing stocks of Morrison shelters will be expended in a relatively short period', without mentioning any other period with which to compare it, the word signifies nothing".

A few years later it became my duty to study the Report of a Royal Commission in which the qualification of all adjectives of quantity or measure by comparatively or relatively was apparently automatic. To me it made the Report almost unreadable; it produced the same nervous tension as waiting for a loud noise repeated at irregular intervals. Such are the trifles on which may depend a writer's power to affect his reader precisely as he wishes. To return to what I said in 1943:

"Sometimes the use of a dressing-gown adverb actually makes the writer say the opposite of what he intended. The writer of the circular which said: 'It is not necessary to be unduly meticulous in . . . . ' meant to say 'you need not be meticulous', but what he actually said was 'you must be meticulous but need not be unduly so', leaving the reader to guess when the limit of dueness in meticulousness has been reached".

Undue and unduly seem to be words that have the property of taking the reason prisoner. "There is no cause for undue alarm" is a phrase I have seen used in all sorts of circumstances by all sorts of people, from a Government spokesman about the plans of the enemy to a Headmistress on the occurrence of a case of poliomyelitis. It is, I suppose, legitimate to say "Don't be unduly alarmed", though I should not myself find much reassurance in it. But "there is no cause for undue alarm" differs little, if at all, from "there is no cause for alarm for which there is no cause", and that hardly seems worth saying.

Just as some adjectives seem to attract unnecessary adverbs, so do some nouns unnecessary adjectives. I have mentioned consideration's fondness for the company of active, and I shall later refer to the inseparable companionship of alternative and accommodation. Danger is another word that is often given support it does not need, generally real or serious.

"The special needs of children under require as much consideration as those of the children aged 5-7, and there is a serious danger that they will be overlooked in these large schools. ... There is a real danger . . . that the development of the children would be unduly forced...

Here we have serious, real and unduly all used superfluously. Serious is prompted by a feeling that danger always needs adjectival support, and real is presumably what grammarians call "elegant variation"(17) to avoid repeating the same word. Unduly is superfluous because the word forced itself contains the idea of undue, just as meticulous does in the example just given. Real danger should be reserved for contrast with imaginary danger, as for instance: "Some people fear so-and-so but the real danger is so-and-so". These things may seem trivial, but nothing is negligible that is a symptom of loose thinking.

Vague adjectives of intensification like considerable, appreciable and substantial are too popular. None of these three should ever be used without three questions being asked first: Do I need an adjective at all? If so, would not a more specific adjective suit better? If not, which of these three (with their different shades of meaning) serves my purpose best? If those who write "This is a matter of considerable urgency" were to ask themselves this question, they would realise that "This is urgent" serves them better. Strong words like urgent, danger, crisis, disaster, fatal, grave, paramount and essential lose their force if used too often. Reserve them for strong occasions, and then let them stand on their own legs, without adjectival or adverbial support.

It would be a fairly safe bet that the word respectively is used unnecessarily or wrongly in legal and official writings more often than any other word in the language. (18) On this I will quote again from my 1943 address:

"It has one simple straightforward use, and that is to link up subjects and objects where more than one is used with a single verb. Thus if I say 'Men and women wear trousers and skirts' you are left in doubt which wears which — which indeed is no more than the truth nowadays. But if you add the word respectively you allot the trousers to the men and skirts to the women. It can also be used harmlessly in a distributive sense, as in the sentence 'Controllers should inform their respective Emergency Committees', but it contributes nothing to the meaning, which is plain enough without it. Respective and respectively are used wrongly or unnecessarily far more often than they are used rightly, and I advise you to leave them alone. You can always get on without them. Even in the example I gave you just now you can say 'Men wear trousers and women skirts', which has the advantage of being crisper, and therefore better English. Here is a sentence in which the writer has fallen into one of the many traps set by this capricious word. He has tried to make it distribute two things among three, and so left the reader guessing.

"The Chief Billeting Officer of the Local Authority, the Regional Welfare Officer of the Ministry of Health, and the Local Officer of the Ministry of Labour and National Service will be able to supplement the knowledge of the Authority on the needs arising out of evacuation and the employment of women respectively."

"It is as though one were to say 'Men and women wear trousers and skirts and knickers respectively'. Who has the knickers?

"But any excessive fondness the official may have for respective and respectively is as nothing compared with the fascination they exercise on lawyers. Many draftsmen seem to use the word in much the same way as the Psalmist uses Selah; they just put one in light-heartedly when they feel that they have been long enough without one."

Here is a recent example, taken from a departmental circular, of the magnetism of this word:

"Owing to the special difficulty of an apportionment of expenditure between (1) dinners and (2) other meals and refreshments respectively...

After taking elaborate care so to arrange the sentence as to make respectively unnecessary, the writer found the lure of it irresistible after all.

The same is true of comparatively in the following:

"There is comparatively little more plant for meeting this demand than there was before the war".

Here are one or two other examples that I happen to have come across in which adjectives are used unnecessarily. They add nothing to the words they qualify:

"This is a matter for an expert architect".
"Bridle tracks for horsemen would be a distinct asset to those concerned".
"It is an essential condition of qualifying for benefit".
"Unilateral refusal to pay the debt". (This is professorial, not official.)
"This is definitely harmful to the workers' health".
"The recent action of the committee in approving the definite appointment of four home visitors".

It is not surprising that I find myself ending this section as I began it — with examples of the superfluous use of definite and definitely. They are notorious sinners.

"Where is this to stop?" asks Sir Alan Herbert. Definite and definitely can be slipped in almost anywhere. I offer a prize to the first Foreman of a Jury to announce a verdict of definitely guilty and another to the Judge who informs the prisoner that he will be 'definitely hanged by the neck until he is very definitely dead'."

Circumlocutory Prepositions
Such phrases as with regard to, in the case of, in relation to, in connection with and as to are usually clumsy substitutes for single prepositions and convey a meaning less precise. It would be not a bad plan for the young official to impose on himself a rule never to use any of these phrases and see how he gets on. Here are some recent examples; the preposition that ought to have been used is added in brackets:

"It has been necessary to cause many dwellings to be disinfested of vermin, particularly in respect of the common bed-bug". (of)
"The general attitude of modern industry in relation to the activities of the Government". (towards)
"More progress has been made in the case of the Southern Railway and the Great Western Railway than in the case of the other two Companies". (by)
"It will be necessary to decide the priority which should be given to nursery provision in relation to other forms of education provision". (over)
"The rates vary in relation to the age of the child". (with)
"Coupons without restrictions as to how you should spend". (on)
"There may be difficulties with regard to the provision of suitable staff". (in)
"Similar considerations apply with regard to application for a certificate". (to)

Beware of the redundant use of as to before whether, who, what, etc.

"You may decide not to proceed with your request for a formal decision as to whether you are liable".

This is a confusion between decision as to your liability and decision whether you are liable.

Akin to these are phrases with point of view, standpoint and angle, useful and legitimate in their proper places, but sometimes devices for avoiding the trouble of precise thought. They thus become clumsy ways of saying something that could be said more simply and effectively.

"Bare boards are unsatisfactory from every angle". (in every respect)
"From a cleaning point of view there are advantages in tables being of a uniform height". (for cleaning)
"Wherever possible the routes will be surveyed in advance to ensure that they are practicable from the point of view of low bridges and other obstructions". (to make sure that there are no low bridges or other obstructions.)

These phrases are not only clumsy but also absurd literally. From how many different angles does one ordinarily look at a floor, how does one find a point of view that is cleaning, and how can one get the point of view of a low bridge — except perhaps by standing on it?

Circumlocutory Expressions Of Number

By this I mean the avoidance of such words as many, few, some, most, and the use in their place of such expressions as in some cases, in the majority of instances and so forth.

"Certain schools which are or will shortly become maintained by local education authorities have boarding-houses, and, in one or two cases, the school is wholly boarding". (One or two of them are wholly boarding.)
"In the majority of instances the bombs fell on open ground". (Most of the bombs.)
"In a number of cases Companies start the completion of the form before the end of the year". (Some Companies)

Circumlocutory Auxiliaries
Various methods are in vogue for softening the curtness of will not or cannot. The commonest are is not prepared to, is not in a position to, does not see his way to, and cannot consider. Such phrases as these are no doubt dictated by politeness, and therefore deserve respect. But they must be used with discretion. The recipient of a letter may feel better — though I doubt it — if he is told that the Minister "is not prepared to approve" than he would have done if the letter had said "the Minister does not approve". But there is not even this slender justification for the phrase if what he is told is that the Minister is prepared to approve.

"The Board have examined your application and they are prepared to allocate 60 coupons for this production. I am accordingly to enclose this number of coupons...

Prepared to allocate should be have allocated. Since the coupons are enclosed, the preparatory stage is clearly over.

But there is a legitimate use of prepared to, as in the following:

"In order to meet the present need, the Secretary of State is prepared to approve the temporary appointment of persons without formal qualifications".

Here the Secretary of State is awaiting candidates, prepared to approve them if they turn out all right. But the phrase should never be used in actually giving approval; it is silly.

There are other dangers in these phrases. They may breed by analogy verbiage that is mere verbiage and cannot call on politeness to justify its existence. You may find yourself writing that the Minister will take steps to when all you mean is he will, or that he will cause investigation to be made with a view to ascertaining, when what you mean is that he will find out. Moreover some of the phrases may suggest undesirable ideas to the flippant. To be told that the Minister is not in a position to approve may excite a desire to retort that he might try putting his feet on the mantelpiece and see if that does any good. The retort will not, of course, be made, but you should not put ideas of that sort about your Minister into people's heads. Pompous old phrases must be allowed to die if they collapse under the prick of ridicule. Such time-honoured expressions as "I am to request you to move your Minister to do so-and-so" and "The Minister cannot conceal from himself" now run the risk of conjuring up risible pictures — the one of physical pressure applied to a bulky and inert object and the other of an honest man's prolonged and painful struggle in unsuccessful self-deception.

Tacking Prepositions To Verbs
I call them prepositions, because that is what they look like to the plain man; but I believe it is more accurate to describe them as adverbs converted to verbal particles. Here my text is this letter to The Times from Mr. Henry Strauss:

"Must this government of illiterate exhortation continue to destroy the King's English? Must industries be fully 'manned up' rather than 'manned'? Must the strong, simple transitive verb, which is one of the main glories of our tongue, become as obsolete in England as it appears to be in America? There (or at least in Hollywood) you never meet a man, you 'meet up with' him; you never visit friends, you 'visit with' them; you never study a subject, you 'study up on' it."

At the same time we must not forget that although the strong, simple transitive verb is one of the main glories of our tongue, another is she marvellous flexibility that has enabled us for instance Out of the strong, simple transitive verb put to create verbs of such diverse meanings as put about, put away, put back, put by, put down, put forward, put in, put off put on, put out, put through, put up and put up with. Still, the infection which, as Mr. Strauss points out, is spreading across the Atlantic calls for watchfulness. No plea can be admitted in defence of adding a verbal particle to a verb merely for the purpose of expressing the same meaning as the verb already expressed. Another page of the issue of The Times in which this letter appeared contains a ministerial answer to a question in Parliament about the alleged unserviceability of a fire-extinguishing appliance at an aerodrome. This contains the sentence: "The engine and the foam pump motor were run up". Here the wanton addition of up is positively misleading. If the context did not show the meaning to be that, these engines were run from time to time to keep them warm, the reader would have supposed it to be that they were brought rapidly to the scene of the accident.

I use this term to signify all types of verbiage that we have not already considered, for they seem to me to defy further classification. Mr. Winston Churchill referred to one in a memorandum entitled "Brevity" that he issued as Prime Minister on the 9th August, 1940. He wrote:

"Let us have an end of such phrases as these:
'It is also of importance to bear in mind the following considerations . . .' or 'consideration should be given to the possibility of carrying into effect...' Most of these woolly phrases are mere padding, which can be left out altogether, or replaced by a single word. Let us not shrink from using the short expressive phrase even if it is conversational".

These phrases, unnecessarily interposed as links between operative sentences, clumsy and obtrusive stitches on a fabric that ought to be seamless, are an outstanding blemish of official writing. Mr. Churchill gave two common examples based on consideration; he might equally well have chosen phrases based on appreciate. It is appreciated that (anticipating an objection that is to be met) and it will be appreciated that (introducing a reason for a decision that is to be given) are very prevalent. They can almost always be omitted altogether without harm to the sense, and with benefit to the style.

I have already referred to the way in which this sort of padding shows itself in official letters. Each paragraph is thought to need introductory words — "I am to add": "I am further to observe": "I am moreover to remark": "Finally I am to point out": and so forth. Here is the same phenomenon in a circular sending a form for a statistical return:

  1. It should be noted that the particulars of expenditure . . . relate to gross costs.
  2. It is appreciated that owing to staffing difficulties Local Authorities may not find it possible on this occasion to complete Tables....
  3. It will be noted that in Tables . . . the only overhead expenditure which the Authorities are asked to isolate is...
  4. Table 4 . . . is intended to provide a broad picture.

The words italicised in the first three paragraphs are padding. They are no more needed there than in paragraph (iv), where the writer has wisely done without them. Perhaps he felt that he had run out of stock. This form of padding deserves special mention because the temptation affects officials more than most people, and because it is comparatively easy to resist. It shows itself more plainly than other more subtle temptations to pad. For the rest, padding can only be defined as the use of words, phrases and even sentences that contribute nothing to the reader's perception of the writer's meaning. This fault assumes an infinite variety of forms and no rule can be laid down for its avoidance except to cultivate clear thinking. All I can do is to give some examples, and all you can do is to read through what you write with determination to prune ruthlessly any surplusage of the sort.

The following extracts from two documents issued by the same Ministry about the same time are instructive.

The first is:

"I am to add that, doubtless, local authorities appreciate that it is a matter of prime importance that information about possible breaches of Defence Regulation . . . should reach the investigating officers of the Ministry . . . with the minimum of delay".

The second is:

"After six years of war almost every building in this country needs work doing to it. The whole of the building labour force could be employed on nothing else but repairs and maintenance. Yet there are hundreds of thousands of families who urgently need homes of their own and will keep on suffering great hardship until houses can be provided for them".

The first of these is bad. It is the sort of thing that those who say Civil Servants write badly point to in support of their case. The first eighteen of its thirty-eight words are padding, and the last five are a starchy paraphrase of "as soon as possible". The second is excellent. It has no padding and says what it has to say in brisk businesslike English. Why this difference of style within the same Department? We can only guess, but I do not think the guess is difficult. The first was written for the guidance of Local Government officials only. It was a routine matter and no special care was taken over it; that is the sort of thing Local Authorities expect and understand. But the second was intended to impress the man in the street, and the writer was at pains to put his point in a way that would he grasped at once and would carry conviction. That is, I have no doubt, the explanation, but it is not a sufficient one. Whatever the purpose, the first is bad and the second good, and the official should cultivate an economy of words that will make the second natural to him for all purposes.


"The Board should in the light of experience study the location of industry throughout the country with a view to anticipating cases where depression may probably occur in the future and encouraging before a depression crisis arises the development in such cases, so far as possible, of other industries."

As was said of one of the examples in Chapter 3, there is matter for an essay in this. Almost every phrase calls for comment.

In the light of experience. It would perhaps be censorious to condemn this as mere padding, but it hardly seems needed. Such a Board studying such a subject might naturally be expected to do so in the light of all relevant considerations.

Study the location of industry throughout the country. This shows the danger of abstract words, a subject to be dealt with later. They save the trouble of thinking. The words quoted convey no precise meaning. Probably what the writer meant was that the Board should keep a constant eye on how things were going in every industrial area. But he did not succeed in saying so.

Cases where depression may probably occur is a padded way of saying probable depressions. Why drag in cases?

In the future has no defence to a charge of being padding, nor have in such cases and so far as possible in the following lines.

Before a depression crisis arises is a padded way of saying beforehand, or, if the emphasis is on crisis, a stilted way of saying before things get really bad. The expression depression crisis is an example of that evil thing the "abstract appendage", on which see chapter 8. Finally, there is still enough life left in the metaphor depression to make arises an unhappy choice of verb.

It is not easy to say just what the passage means, but it seems to amount to this:

"The Board should try to foresee the likelihood of a local depression in any industrial area, and encourage other industries to go there beforehand".


"Authorities should be definitely discouraged from committing themselves to purchase in advance of approval. If they do so commit themselves they should be asked in every case to explain why they have done so. Where it is decided to accept the explanation it should none the less be made clear to the Authorities that we shall not be prepared to recommend a loan for more than the figure acceptable to us.

This contains the following padding, all of which can be struck out without harming the sense: Definitely, so commit themselves, in every case, they have done so, none the less, to the Authority, and be prepared to. And it is decided to accept the explanation is a padded way of saying is accepted.

Padding may take the form of saying, sometimes at some length, what is so obvious that it need not be said at all. Here is an example from my 1943 address:

"The planning of the Government Evacuation Scheme falls into two parts (a) the arrangements for the removal of persons from the areas to be evacuated, and (b) the arrangements for their reception in the areas to which they are transferred. Those arrangements will not be of uniform concern to all local authorities, the arrangements for removal being a matter for the authorities for the evacuating areas and the arrangements for reception for the authorities for the receiving areas."

The following introductory sentence to a circular is, I think, wholly padding, but I cannot be sure, for I can find no meaning in it.

"The proposals made in response to this request show differences of approach to the problem which relate to the differing recommendations of the Committee's Report, and include some modifications of those recommendations."

The double padding in the following example is flagrant:

"The problem is likely to continue in existence for an indefinite period ahead."

Finally, here are two imaginary circulars. They are different ways of saying the same thing; one well-padded, the other stripped of all padding. They are taken from an Office Memorandum of the Ministry of Education.

Imaginary Circular. Version A
Arrangements for Additional Allocations of Beer
to Members of Education Committees.

The Minister has been in receipt of not a few inquiries from local education authorities regarding the possibility of obtaining additional allocations of beer for purposes in connection with the discharge of their functions under Part II of the First Schedule to the Education Act, 1944. Under present circumstances it will be appreciated that supplies of beer are very restricted and that, owing to the many and competing demands, it is not practicable to secure tile provision of allocations to meet all reasonable requirements.
The Minister has, however, been in consultation with the Minister of Food and in the result it has been agreed between them that, where local conditions are such as to make the existing allotment insufficient, an additional quantity may be permitted. For this purpose, local education authorities should make application to their local Food Offices for the appropriate form which, on completion, should be forwarded (in triplicate) to the Secretary, Ministry of Education. Belgrave Square, London, S.W.1. In suitable eases a recommendation will be made to the Minister of Food for the issue of an additional allotment of beer. It will no doubt be readily appreciated, however, that while every effort will be made by those concerned to deal with applications as expeditiously as the present stringency as regards staff and other available resources allows, there can be no certainty that any acknowledgment of applications made by authorities will prove to be forthcoming, still less that appropriate allocations will follow in due course.

Imaginary Circular. Version B
Education Committees: Extra Beer for Members

  1. The Minister has been asked by several local education authorities whether more beer can he obtained for use at education committee meetings
  2. Arrangements have been made with the Ministry of Food for extra supplies to local education authorities who can show a real need, e.g. where the committee room is too hot or the members' speeches too long.
  3. To get this extra ration local education authorities should ask the local Food Office for Form B.752/M.E.F., and send three completed copies to the Secretary, Ministry of Education, Belgrave Square, London, S.W.1.
  4. The final decision on the applications will be taken by the Minister of Food.

A close study of these two versions will be found repaying. Anyone who makes one will discover the following interesting things among others.

Version A is not a caricature. Except for the improbability of its subject-matter, there is nothing in it to arouse doubt about its authenticity. Lots of circulars are written like that.

Version A contains 262 words. Version B says in 106 words everything that needed to be said.

This reduction of the number of words is accounted for in two ways:

  1. Version B says things tersely and directly that Version A says in a roundabout way. For example: "Has been in receipt of not a few enquiries from local education authorities regarding the possibility of obtaining additional allocations of beer" has become "has been asked by several local education authorities whether more beer can be obtained" — fourteen words instead of twenty-two.
  2. Version B omits everything that is not necessary to communicating the decision. It cuts out the apologetic explanations about the shortage of beer and the shortage of staff, typically introduced by an it will be appreciated phrase at the end of the first and second paragraphs. It is no longer recorded that the agreement between the Ministers of Food and Education was preceded by consultation; this, though true, is not interesting.

In spite of this drastic pruning of words, Version B finds space to particularise on something that Version A left vague, and to tell us that hot weather and long speeches may be regarded as what Version A calls "suitable occasions".

I commend moreover to all officials the final words of the Office Memorandum from which these imaginary circulars are taken:

"We should aim at B rather than A — and then issue neither".