Redundant…or Not?

Suppose you were an editor. Would you change anything in this sentence?

I talked to three different people on the phone before I found someone who could answer my question.

I would delete “different.” If you talked to three people, of course they were different! Unnecessary words clog sentences, robbing them of vigor and power. “Omit needless words” is one of Strunk & White’s most important rules. 

But sometimes you should ignore that rule. And – truth to tell – you have to ignore that rule many times every day. Redundancy and repetition are built into our language, for good reasons. The trick is to know when to use a tight, spare sentence and when to allow some repetition.

What – for example – would you do with this sentence?

He takes his daughter to day care on Mondays and Fridays.

I like it just the way it is, and I wouldn’t change anything. But – technically speaking – it’s redundant because it tells you three times that there’s one person (he, takes, his – all singular). And it tells you twice that he’s male (he, his).

If you’re thinking that you have to say his daughter – that’s not true. Finnish doesn’t have gender pronouns!

The English language wants that redundancy (he takes his). And many of our everyday sentences have similar hidden redundancies. Why?

Here’s the reason. We don’t always speak and read in perfect conditions. Someone nearby is streaming music. A thunderstorm, or loud traffic, or a conversation at the next table is creating background noise. We’re distracted by something, or the handwriting is bad, or we’re tired. Maybe there’s a bad phone connection. All those issues can interfere with a spoken or written message. A little extra repetition ensures that you won’t miss anything.

When you think about it, it’s amazing how many messages get through perfectly. And we can thank our language for that.

So – when is redundancy ok, and when should we get rid of it?

There’s no absolute answer – but I have a suggestion: look for empty words that can often be deleted from sentences: different people, respective , end result, final decision, exact same, existing – and so on. In my next post I’ll give you more examples.

But what about phrases like climb up, cut out, and explain about? And can you say that Joan and Jim were doing the cha cha together? I would probably leave those extra words in for emphasis.

Can you disagree? Of course. Sometimes I can’t make up my mind whether to remove a word or leave it in. What I do is to try it both ways and see which I like better.

What’s important is that you’re thinking about your word choices. That extra step automatically sets you apart from most people – and moves you closer to your goal of becoming an exceptional writer. It’s well worth the small extra effort!

frustrated man on the phone

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