Omit Needless postings


Another inventory, this time of postings (on this blog, on New Language Log, and on Language Log Classic) in which “Omit Needless” advice (mostly Omit Needless Words, or ONW, but sometimes advice to omit other things) plays a role. The inventory was prepared by Tim Moon as part of this summer’s work on the OI! project, under the sponsorship of the office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford. The inventory is current up to 6/21/09.

Arnold Zwicky’s Blog

“Two thousand eight” – January 14, 2009 – Arnold Zwicky

Two thousand eight

The majority of the post is not about ONW, but there is a tangent about manuals which tell you that you must not write {January 14th} and that only {January 14} is acceptable, omitting an unnecessary {th}.

“The perils of ONW” – May 9, 2009 – Arnold Zwicky

The perils of ONW

Describes an amusing story in Rolf Heimann’s 2005 book The Royal Flea that shows the dangers of Omit Needless Words taken to an extreme.


New Language Log

“Disjunction mailbox” – April 21, 2008 – Arnold Zwicky

The majority of the post is not about ONW, but there is a mention of ONW enthusiasts who might be expected to argue that the either in either…or is dispensable.

 “if whether or not” – May 11, 2008 – Arnold Zwicky

Mentions that a fair number of usage manuals say to leave out the or not of whether…or not, pointing to this as a classic battle in the contest between Clarity and Brevity. “Whether … or not is explicit, whether alone is implicit.”

“approve (of)” – May 15, 2008 – Arnold Zwicky

Describes how William Safire argues that the of in approve of should be omitted, believing that the direct approve and the oblique approve of are semantically equivalent. Zwicky responds to Safire’s argument by saying that approve of is different from approve and that Safire is using ONW to argue against a construction he does not prefer rather than one that actually has needless words to omit.

“A test kitchen for stylistic recipes” – June 1, 2008 – Mark Liberman

Briefly mentions ONW in a discussion about Strunk & White’s treatment of This in Chapter IV of The Elements of Style, showing how the version of the example paragraph that uses this is vague but does not prevent understanding, while the version that explicitly writes out the thing referred to by this in the first paragraph arguably violates ONW.

“Wretched analysis, appalling reporting” – September 7, 2008 – Arnold Zwicky

Briefly mentions that some copyeditors say that commas should not be used to convey pauses in reduced coordination, an example of Omit Needless Commas. This is brought up in a discussion of Wired’s analysis of three e-mails claimed to have been sent by Steve Jobs, as Wired argued that commas in reduced coordination are ungrammatical; Zwicky says instead that it is a stylistic choice, and one that is used regularly by excellent writers.

“Battling proscriptions” – January 4, 2009 – Arnold Zwicky

Discusses how ONW is a source of the No That advice (complementizer that must be omitted wherever possible), saying that someone took ONW as a “first principle of grammar (not just style)” and overextended it by applying it to the fullest.

“Presidential inaugurals: the form and content” – January 15, 2009 – Geoffrey K. Pullum

In a post about form v. function, Pullum says that if you think ONW is “deep and important and determinative of quality,” you will be hung up on trivialities of form rather than important aspects of content.

 “Apostrophe catastrophe” – January 31, 2009 – Arnold Zwicky

Discusses the outrage in Britain over the Birmingham city council’s decision to stop using apostrophes in its street signs, an example of Omit Needless Marks.

 “V + P~Ø” – February 13, 2009 – Arnold Zwicky

Talks about verbs that can occur (with similar meanings) either with direct objects (the Ø option) or oblique objects (the P option). Says that when usage critics prefer the Ø option, they usually appeal to brevity (ONW), disregarding possible meaning differences. References the earlier post “approve of” (May 15, 2008).

“Wordy, not classy, and lazy” – March 24, 2009 – Arnold Zwicky

Talks about a complaint from a reader of the Baltimore Sun about its use of forms of the verb “to be” in headlines. Zwicky believes the complainant’s deeper object to be a version of ONW, “carried to an absurd conclusion: if you can omit words, you must.”

“Rigid Complementarity” – May 14, 2009 – Arnold Zwicky

Post about the alternation between and and zero in numerical expressions like “two hundred (and) six elephants.” Says ONW is insufficient to explain why some people condemn the use of and, remarking that ONW is almost always appealed to “after the fact”.

Language Log Classic

 “Those Who Take the Adjectives From the Table” – February 18, 2004 – Geoffrey K. Pullum

Talks about experts on writing who insist that adjectives are bad, bringing up Strunk and White’s advice in The Elements of Style: “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.”

“Omit Stupid Grammar Teaching” – May 31, 2004 – Geoffrey K. Pullum

Talks about how an undergraduate student of Pullum’s mentioned that her high school English teacher insisted that if you could omit that and still leave the sentence grammatical, you must omit it. This is brought up as an example of what Pullum calls “grammatical fascism” originating in an “elevation of a stupid mantra [ONW] to the status of a holy edict.”

“Sidney Goldberg on NYT Grammar: Zero For Three” – September 17, 2004 – Geoffrey K. Pullum

Talks about Sidney Goldberg’s article in The National Review in which he criticizes grammar errors in the New York Times. Pullum says that Goldberg is wrong on every one of his criticisms, pointing to ONW as a reason for one of Goldberg’s mistakes.

“Our Bird Aviary” – January 19, 2005 – Geoffrey K. Pullum

Pullum describes a sign on a pet store wall that used the phrase “bird aviary”, pointing to bird as a word that could be omitted based on ONW. However, he also notes that something like “tropical bird aviary” is not redundant, since “all aviaries are for birds, but not all have tropical birds.”

“Grammatical Indoctrination at Law Reviews” – October 8, 2005 – Mark Liberman

Talks about grammar editing in law school law reviews. Brings up the example of one law review editor who “thought that many uses of the word the were errors” and took out as many thes as he could.

“In Terms of Recency,…” – October 24, 2005 – Arnold Zwicky  

Comments on an op-ed piece in the Stanford Daily that criticizes the use of the phrase “in terms of”, noting that one of the standard objections to the phrase is that it uses three words where one preposition could fulfill the same function.

“Collateral Damage” – February 20, 2006 – Arnold Zwicky

Says that “generalizing a proscription against a particular expression – and especially providing an explanation for the proscription” can be dangerous and can lead to collateral damage. Uses the example of for free, as some say to drop the for (ONW).

“The Direct and Vigorous Hyptic Voice” – August 5, 2006 – Mark Liberman

Recounts an anecdote in which Will Strunk violates his own ONW while telling his class to “Omit needless words!”

“Omit Needless Commas” – August 16, 2006 – Mark Liberman

Mentions that Bart Kosko’s book Noise has no commas and also brings up the examples of Michel Thaler’s verbless novel Le Train de Nulle Part and a quote from Gertrude Stein in which she questions the necessity of colons and commas.

“What’s The Name of Your University?” – September 2, 2006 – Arnold Zwicky

Talks about variations in university naming. Zwicky suspects that “mostly people choose the premodifying variant because it’s shorter, by two words, the “the” and the “of”: Omit Needless Words!  There certainly is no meaning difference.”

“The The in The Ohio State University” – September 5, 2006 – Arnold Zwicky

Discusses why Ohio State insists on being called The Ohio State University when most other colleges drop the definite-article.

“ONW” – January 24, 2007 – Arnold Zwicky

Features an ONW poem, the preface to Maurice Sagoff’s ShrinkLits. Also features another entertaining take on ONW from Geoffrey Pullum, who says that omitting the word “needless” in the phrase “omit needless words” leads to a Goedelian paradox.

“ONW and Legalese” – January 26, 2007 – Sally Thomason

Short post in which Thomason remarks that the January 24, 2007 “ONW” post by Zwicky reminded her of David Mellinkoff, who pleaded for legal language to be “clear and unadorned language with no superfluous verbiage” in his Legal Writing: Sense and Nonsense.

“Implicature Troubles” – January 28, 2007 – Arnold Zwicky

Features a cartoon in which a woman gets into trouble by mentioning that she played Uno with “two black guys,” leading to her friends calling her racist. Zwicky relates the cartoon to Grice’s concept of “conversational implicature” and says that this is a situation in which ONW is “(sort of) good advice,” since the woman could have omitted needless information and avoided trouble.

“If You Could Possibly Do Without Them They Must Be Banned” – February 10, 2007 – Geoffrey K. Pullum

Features an anecdote about a student who suggested that adjectives “are not necessary parts of speech,” thinking that because you can get your point across without them, they are needless and should be forbidden.

“Tolerating Variation, Or Not” – February 24, 2007 – Arnold Zwicky

In a post about variations in usage advice, Zwicky notes that usage advisers say to omit of in phrases of the form preposition + of (out/outside/inside/alongside/off of) while they say nothing about the for in except for, even though the cases are similar.

“Foolish Hobgoblins” – March 4, 2007 – Arnold Zwicky

Post about variability (British v. American spelling, spelling of OK, use of apostrophes, etc.). Brings up Omit Needless Characters in talking about the One-Space Rule, which saves a character by having only one space between sentences rather than two.

“Advice to the President: Omit Needless ‘In Other Words’” – May 8, 2007 – Mark Liberman

Talks about President Bush’s overuse of the phrase “in other words”.

“Omit Needless” – May 30, 2007 – Arnold Zwicky

Discusses the omission of then in if…then, which some say is a word that contributes nothing to the message. Zwicky says that part of the popular appeal of ONW is the assumption that all that language is for is to convey messages from one person to another; Zwicky believes that “needless” words are often serving some function that conflicts with brevity and believes there is a use for conditional then.

“What’s It All About?” – September 11, 2007 – Arnold Zwicky

Talks about the phrase at about and how some say that it is redundant. This post also discusses the OI! Project.

“(An)arthrous Abbreviations” – September 17, 2007 – Arnold Zwicky

Discusses how acronyms are anarthrous, even when the full names they abbreviate are arthrous (The Acronym Principle), and how in general, initialisms are arthrous if their full forms are, and anarthrous otherwise (The Initialism Principle). Also brings up a general exception to the Initialism Principle in the naming of educational institutions, whose initialisms are generally anarthrous. Zwicky points to these variations as another example of the competition between economy and clarity.

“Just Say ‘These’” – October 4, 2007 – Arnold Zwicky

Discusses the use of these versus these ones. Zwicky believes that the non-standard variant these ones is available only for deictic uses, and not for anaphoric uses.

“Whether Either” – December 20, 2007 – Arnold Zwicky

Brings up ONW in a discussion of various puzzles involving whether and either (concessive either, correlative either…either, correlative whether…whether, correlative subjects, bonus WTF coordination). Zwicky says “the really big point here is that it’s loopy to legislate in general against explicit marking (ONW) OR implicit marking (IANW) when both are available.  Each has its own virtues, depending on the context.”

2 Responses to “Omit Needless postings”

  1. Pleonastic indefinite article « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] Actually, on alternate Tuesdays I think that D is subtly different from O and I, but then for me D examples like “I have a half a dollar in my pocket” and “I’ll see you in a half an hour” are stylistically and semantically neutral, while both O and I strike me as marked in some way. (I realize that my judgments are not shared bt many people, but still I shrink from labeling the D variant as non-standard just because it offends Omit Needless Words.) […]

  2. Vernacular writing « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] North is, in effect, Omitting Needless Punctuation — though those who recommend omitting needless stuff do so only up to conventions appropriate to the context, while North is abandoning some of those […]

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