When workplace reviewers/editors label certain sentences WORDY, they can mean at least three different things:
1. This information seems to me unnecessary and, therefore, the sentence is needlessly adding to the word count;
2. This sentence seems to use too many words to say what it needs to say; or
3. This sentence is unclear and awkwardly written, and I have no idea how to fix it.
(There is another kind of “wordiness” caused by the ineptness of writers who are fairly clueless about sentence structure. This post isn’t interested in this type.)
I’m interested in what I’ll call “institutional wordiness”—wordiness produced by well-meaning, intelligent writers who produce sentences that make readers wince. Here’s the sentence I’ll discuss:
The potential for inconsistent penalty administration within a decentralized management structure is exacerbated by the complexity of the penalty process within the IRS.
Its grammar and punctuation are correct. It’s just 23 words long—hardly long enough to overwhelm our short term memories. Okay, so why is it hard to understand?
Too many “big words,” right? Not really. You know the dictionary definition of every single word. The only uncommon word is “exacerbated,” but we know that means to make something worse. (It comes from a Latin root meaning “to make bitter.”)
Some claim it’s problematic because it’s passive, which it is (…POTENTIAL…IS EXACERBATED BY THE COMPLEXITY…). But if you first encountered the sentence in the active voice, it would be no better:
The complexity of the penalty process within the IRS exacerbates the potential for inconsistent penalty administration within a decentralized management structure.
Can COMPLEXITY actually EXACERBATE POTENTIAL? Go ask Stephen Hawking….
This sentence is difficult to understand because it’s feeding your brain information in a way it’s not wired to understand. Your brain is wired to understand sentences in a particular way. You look for key information, but it must be in its proper place. Let me explain….
THE ENQUIRING MIND LOOKS FOR THE SENTENCE CORE
Writing teachers tell us to write sentences that follow a SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT (S-V-O) sequence. But that’s dangerously incomplete advice. Look at the following sentence, in active voice and S-V-O sequence:
Our lack of pertinent data prevented determination of committee action effectiveness in fund targeting to areas of greatest assistance need.
S-V-O by itself doesn’t ensure clarity. It’s what’s in the S, the V, and the O that matters.
When you read/hear a sentence, you need three key bits of information: Actor-Action-Receiver. This is true of sentences that describe an action. (There is another kind of sentence that states an equivalence—not an action—more on that later.)
The ACTOR is any noun that’s responsible for the action in the sentence.
The ACTION is, obviously, what’s happening in the sentence.
The RECEIVER is any noun that receives the action (direct object). Note that some sentences describe an action, but there’s no receiver: You jumped up and down.
You need these three bits of information, but when you first read/hear a sentence, you don’t scan the whole sentence searching for these bits. You expect them to appear in their expected place: S-V-O.
If the three bits of information are not placed in the S-V-O structure, you get confused. It’s only when you're confused that you start scanning the sentence for the three important bits. If you find them, your mind transforms the unexpected structure back into the structure you need to understand what’s going on.
Sometimes this transformation is fairly simple, as in a passive voice sentence.
You read this: The nail was driven by you.
Your mind transforms it into this: You drove the nail.
But, as in our IRS-sentence, it’s often unclear “who is kicking whom?”
You need a strong sentence core to understand a sentence. The sentence core is simple:
V= true ACTION
O=RECEIVER (if any)
Sentences that lack a strong sentence core are usually wordy and often unclear. Here are two more sentences that were flagged for wordiness:
Attempts were made on the part of the management team in regards to an assessment of the program.
Cutbacks in loan availability for students on the part of the bank were mandated as a result of the complete lack of success in the acquisition of any federal funding.
Compare versions of the same sentences when they’re written with a strong sentence core:
The management team attempted to assess the program.
The bank cut back on student loans because it failed to acquire federal funding.
SO WHY DO WRITERS WRITE SUCH WORDY SENTENCES?
You may think writers are trying to sound “professional” or “smarter” when you read such sentences. Or maybe you think they’re trying to obfuscate on purpose. I think it’s more likely they contracted the wordiness virus.
A sentence catches the wordiness virus when it begins with a weak verb—a verb that fails to state the main action. Three things happen when the verb is weak. The weak verb and its three consequences ARE the four components of the WORDINESS VIRUS. The following sentence, though fairly easy to understand, has all four symptoms of the wordiness virus and a fifth cause of wordiness thrown in for good measure:
There is an immediate need for a thorough review of the program by our trained staff as soon as possible.
1. WEAK VERB (fails to state the main action). The only verb in this sentence is IS, which doesn’t state what the staff must do ( Staff must REVIEW the program).
2. NOMINALIZATION (turns what could have been a verb into a noun). When a sentence has a weak verb, it must put the true action somewhere, so it turns what should have been the true verb into a noun--a nominalization. In this sentence, there are two: NEED and REVIEW.
3. MISPLACED ACTOR (ACTOR is not the grammatical subject of the sentence). The grammatical subject in this sentence is the word NEED, which obviously is not the ACTOR. Sometimes such sentences omit the ACTOR altogether.
4. TOO MANY PREPOSITIONS (lots of prepositions in a sentence usually come from having a weak verb/nominalization combo). When I see 3 or more prepositions in a sentence, I become suspicious.
5. REDUNDANCY. This sentence has actual redundancy (immediate and as soon as possible say pretty much the same thing, and you need only one of them). It also has implied redundancy (it uses words to state something that would be clear from the context, as in the phrase “required deadline”). Here, you don’t need the words thorough or trained.
Redundancy is a component of wordiness, but it is not like the other four parts of the wordiness virus, which are all connected—part of an unstoppable process. Once you select a weak verb, you’ll have nominalization, misplaced actor, and unnecessary prepositions.
Writers may choose elevated diction to sound more professional or intelligent or even to deceive the reader. But what I callinstitutional wordiness is usually unintended. It happens when a writer uses a weak verb (and gets worse when the writer adds some redundancy).
If this is true, I should be able to revise the original IRS sentence by giving it a strong sentence core. All I need to do is figure out WHO IS DOING WHAT TO WHOM? If I can do that, the wordiness virus should disappear. So compare my revision:
The IRS is potentially administering penalties inconsistently because it has a decentralized management structure and a complex penalty process.
The Subject states the ACTOR. The main VERB states the true ACTION. The direct object states the RECEIVER. No nominalizations. No prepositions. Message sent; message received!
Note that some sentences don’t describe an action. They merely state an equivalence (or a state of being). The subject is linked to what’s called a “complement” in the predicate. The word complement comes from the word to complete. (Notice the spelling.) It’s a COMPLETE-MENT. So some sentences don’t describe action; they just show equivalence: A=B (or simply a state of being: I AM!) such as these:
The sky IS blue.
You ARE very smart.
The library IS in the other building.
Berries TASTE sweet.
(Sentences like these usually don’t get especially wordy, though they can.)
SO WHAT’S THE TAKE-AWAY?
Become very aware of NOMINALIZATIONS. They usually indicate the wordiness virus. Of course all nominalizations aren’t bad. The word application in the following sentence is not a sign of wordiness: You rejected the application.
When you spot a nominalization, try to turn it back into its verb form and rewrite the sentence using the verb instead of the noun. Most of the time this will make sentences shorter and clearer, which is a great COMBINATION! But when you can’t convert the nominalization, keep it—it’s pulling its weight.
To learn more about writing clear sentences, I recommend the book STYLE: Toward Clarity & Grace by Joseph Williams. (http://www.unalmed.edu.co/~poboyca/documentos/Doc.%20Seminario%20I/style.pdf)
It was a watershed book for me.
I hope this post helps you spot and reduce wordiness. Good luck....