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'Deadwood' - A Commentary

By Paula LaRocque, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – Deadwood and redundancies are the worst enemies of clear and effective writing. 'Deadwood' means words that do no work, and 'redundancy' means words that do the same work. For example, "were found to be in agreement" is wordy, because the single word 'agreed' says the same thing.

"Set a new record" and "new recruit" are redundancies - when you set a record, it's necessarily new, just as recruits are always new.

Deadwood often results from pairing nouns that end in "-ion" with other verbs. For example: "We made a decision" could be "we decided." "They conducted an investigation into" could be "they investigated." "He gave a demonstration" could be "he demonstrated."

Using one active verb will tighten such flab. For example:

"give consideration to" means CONSIDER
"have the need for" means NEED
"made an effort" means TRIED
"made the statement that" means SAID
"were in attendance" means ATTENDED
"has the ability to" means CAN

Prepositions often create deadwood. Prepositions are little words such as 'in,' 'on,' 'of,' 'by,' 'for,' 'with,' and so forth. Cutting those words is one quick way to leaner writing. Here, for example, is a preposition-heavy passage: "He parked in the lot located on Maple Street on a regular basis because there wasn't a sufficient number of spaces on the streets in the vicinity of his office." If that sentence lost many of those prepositions, we'd have a brief, clear, and energetic statement: "He often parked in the Maple Street lot because there weren't enough spaces near his office."

Here's more prepositional flab:

"until such time as" means UNTIL
"with the exception of" means EXCEPT
"in all other cases" means OTHERWISE
"on the occasion that" means WHEN
"at a later date" means LATER

Redundancies are common in speech but should be edited in writing. We often hear, for example, phrasing such as "past history" or past experience." Of course history and experience must be past. Here are some other redundancies:

"end result" equals RESULT
"sum total" equals TOTAL
"basic fundamental" equals FUNDAMENTAL
"potential promise" equals POTENTIAL
"free gift" equals GIFT
"personal friendship" equals FRIENDSHIP
"12 noon or 12 midnight" equals NOON or MIDNIGHT. After all, each always occurs at 12.

Some redundant expressions are silly. We might hear of "true facts," for example. But facts are true; and if they aren't true, then they're not facts. "He nodded his head" is another silly redundancy. What else might he nod? Or: "She shrugged her shoulders." Again, what else might we shrug but our shoulders? Better are "he nodded" and "she shrugged." We see the same kind of redundancy in "tall in height," "blue in color," "round in shape," "large in size," or "a distance of 30 miles."

Of all editing tasks, cutting deadwood and redundancy is the easiest. And it's well worth the effort because spare and precise writing is not only shorter and clearer, it's also more interesting and energetic.

Paula LaRocque is a former writing coach for the Dallas Morning News. Her latest book is "The Book on Writing - The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well."