On Failing to Omit Needless Words

E.B. Mourns Your Lack of Discipline

E.B. Mourns Your Lack of Discipline

All else equal, shorter law review articles are better than longer ones.  But bloat’s allies are legion: editors; footnote-related positional competition; bad publisher incentives, etc.  For fun, I decided to test a few of Strunk & White’s dreaded common needless phrases to see which appears most often in law review articles.  Here are the candidates: the winners follow after the jump.

“the question as to whether”

“there is no doubt but that”

“this is a subject which”

“the fact that”

“Question” and “fact” both hit the ceiling: 10,000 hits in JLR.  “Doubt” marks 647 papers, while “subject” is rare, with only 28 entries.  Editors, consider this:  removing “the fact that” from each sentence in which it appears can usually kill at least four words.  Four words an article, times at least 10,000 articles.  With no loss of meaning, you could have made room for two more published articles in the universe!

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18 Responses

  1. “With no loss of meaning, you could have made room for two more published articles in the universe!”

    Only among law profs would the prospect of two more published law review articles be considered a winning sales pitch.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    I’m wondering how you get from “the fact that” to four words, or even necessarily three. E.g., “The fact that words have been omitted does not guarantee that the article has been improved.”

  3. Paul Horwitz says:

    Here’s a smaller fix with even more frequent applicability: replace “the author,” which some journals insist on (if they don’t insist on some even more wordy indirect way of stating things), with “I.” Then, try to omit even the “I” and just state a proposition.

  4. Dave Hoffman says:

    Paul: “more frequent applicability”? Than “the fact that”? Prove it!

    A.J.: the clean example is “owing to the fact that” –> since or because. In your sentence, I’d edit to: “Fewer words do not guarantee a better sentence” is, at eight words, superior than the 14-16 they replace. At least in my view. And I think there’s still fat to cull there — “do not guarantee” has flab.

  5. Dave Hoffman says:

    Two other comments. To AJ: all else equal, I do think it’s better that there be more research published than less. Research contributes to society. Not all of it, but the correlation is positive and significant. So a net gain of two more articles is a good thing. You’d probably agree if I said that Science or Nature could publish two more pieces, right?

    On a somewhat unrelated point, it occurs to me, looking at the picture of E.B. White in my post, that he looks a little bit like actor Patrick Stewart. Coincidence?

  6. Anon Dork says:

    Post title edit: “On Not Omitting Needless Words”?

  7. Anon Dork says:

    Addendum: the only reason that wasn’t “On Including Needless Words” was to get the S&W reference in there, but, actually the word “needless” might be enough.

  8. Kaimi says:

    How about “cannot guarantee,” then?

  9. Dave Hoffman says:

    Kaimi: “cannot” isn’t materially better than “do not”! It takes the same amount of space, and the meaning is different. Fewer words can – in some circumstances – guarantee a better sentence, when the omitted words are interfering with meaning. They do not always do so.

    Dork: I hear you, though my title had the virtue of reminding readers that editing is an active process: including needless words is a failure. Your version is shorter, but omits the moral judgment.

  10. Steve Lubet says:

    The omission of four words will only save space if it happens to reduce the length of a paragraph. Otherwise, the result will only be a slightly shorter last line. No less paper, and not even any less space on a webpage.

  11. Anon Dork says:

    Dave: Good point. How about “On Including Needless Words (You Filthy Bastards Know Who You Are!)”

    (I’m enjoying this way too much, when I really should be using this time to generate an article chock full of needless words….)

  12. Lawrence Cunningham says:


    Your sabbatical is off to a great start!

    Additional candidates that law professors not only commonly write but also commonly speak, that should be stricken on style grounds, are “the ways in which” and “that is to say” [or “which is to say”].

    The former often means “how” and that single word should be used; the “in which” is never necessary. The latter signals poor thought when uttered and need for rewriting when written.

    Those points make it astonishing how often all three are used. In JLR, “the ways in which” and “that is to say” both hit the 10,000 results ceiling; “which is to say” yields 3,735.

  13. Dave Hoffman says:

    I confess a fatal weakness for “that is.” Is it as bad as “that is to say?” That is, should I be embarrassed regarding the fact that it makes no less than seven appearances in one of my recent articles? There’s no doubt that it’s a subject about which one might be sensitive.

    A.Dork: Have you considered writing a needless article full of filthy words? Probably more fun, though perhaps less useful at tenure, if you are of that ilk.

  14. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    Dave (comment 13):

    So, I do want to express how sorry I am feeling now that I have reason to believe that it might be the case that the comment that I made earlier today was not sufficiently of a sensitive nature, in light of the fact that you yourself may have possibly made use of the very styles of expression, or perhaps something that amounts to variations on such styles of expression, that the foregoing comment has emphatically emphasized should not ever be used anymore under circumstances of any nature.

    I do not here mean to go so far as to say that you should not necessarily be experiencing the feeling of embarrassment about the facts that you have set forth in your comment above. Indeed, I only want at the present time to indicate my appreciation and understanding of the extent to which it is conceivable that I could be in the wrong as to the matter. This is precisely because it is certainly open to conjecture that disagreement about these various issues could potentially exist among a large number of those people whose job it is to write things for other people to read.

    You give a pretty good and arguably compelling illustrative example when you bring into the discussion the very interesting notion of whether or not “that is” is as bad, or not as bad, as “that is to say.” In the interest of generating continuing discussion on the point, I would just add, for whatever it may be worth to other people, that there could be some other unspecified relationship altogether between “that is” and “that is to say” that has not been looked into, investigated, examined or considered, even by way of implication, in previous written materials on the subject (or any other). But this is not the place or time to delve deeply into the difficult complexities and higher abstractions that a serious study would necessarily require in order to provide a fully comprehensive treatment of the subject.

  15. A.J. Sutter says:

    Dave: As for the fact that you edited my sentence beyond striking out ‘the fact,’ I agree that real editing is more fruitful than mechanical phrase-striking. Caveat: there’s a limit to the benefits of word-counting. I might have said “better” instead of “more fruitful,” but that would have eliminated a metaphor I intended.

    Otherwise, I think you have me confused with someone else: I never doubted expressed doubt about the value of more research.

  16. Dave Hoffman says:

    A.J.: The comment about research ought to have been directed to Maryland. Apologies! I agree – as did E.B. – that cutting words isn’t sufficient, and sometimes it actively hurts. But the fact that really does need to be first to the wall.

    Larry: I think you ought to rewrite some of your cover letters in this style. I found it irresistible.

  17. Jeff Lipshaw says:

    I think E.B. looks more like J. Robert Oppenheimer.

  18. jimbino says:

    Steve Dubet’s math is wrong. Sometimes the deletion will save no space, as he points out. But other times it will save an entire line that might have held 10 words. On average, the deletion saves four words.