The Complete Plain Words: wordiness

Golden rule: less is better than more.

Here are two versions of a letter sent in reply to a telephone line request. The first version is the original, the second is the one revised by Sir Ernest Gowers.

Version A. I regret however that (1) the Survey Officer who is responsible for the preliminary investigation as to the technical possibility of installing a telephone at the address quoted by the applicant has reported that (2) owing to a shortage of spare wires to the underground cable (a pair of wires leading from the point near your house right back to the local exchange and thus a pair of wires essential for the provision of telephone service for you) is lacking and that therefore (3) it is a technical impossibility to install a telephone for you.

Version B. I am sorry to tell you that (1) we have found (2) that there is no spare pair of wires on the cable that we would have used to connect your house with the exchange. I regret therefore that (3) it is impossible to install a telephone for you. [From “The Complete Plain Words“, Sir Ernest Gowers]

At first glance, it may appear that no one in his mind would ever express himself as in Version A, except perhaps the government officials to whom Gowers’ book was addressed back in 1954.

However, Version A is not as far-fetched as it may seem. It is very close to the way in which many native Italians speak and write, notably politicians, poor lecturers, and would-be professors.

Let us have a look at how the two versions differ.

  1. Version B (1) has replaced the “Survey Officer”  with a more generic “we have found”. This is correct, as it is absolutely irrelevant for the person requesting the telephone line to know who is actually in charge of carrying out the investigation.
  2. It has also removed a piece of information that is most certainly already present in the letter’s subject line and thus is redundant: “as to the technical possibility of installing a telephone at the address quoted by the applicant”.
  3. Furthermore, Version B has replaced the tedious explanation in (2) with a more succinct one that does away with the cumbersome brackets. Once again, the abridged version is much clearer.
  4. In (3) “technical impossibility” was replaced with “it is impossible to”. We can only speculate on why they used “technical impossibility” in the first place, maybe to suggest that they *did* put some effort in trying to get the job done but that for (technical) reasons beyond their control they were unable to.

The example above is especially instructive for a simultaneous interpreter since it elaborates on the apparently trivial ability of “taking away” that proves invaluable in keeping up with a fast paced speaker while producing coherent, accurate and meaningful sentences.

Here is just one other example, a classic of interpreting taken from the proceedings of a UN conference (Chernov 1994, 146):

Chairman: “And now I give the floor to the distinguished representative of the Republic of Tanzania”

Translated by the interpreter with: “Tanzania”

This example shows just how important context is in eliminating redundancies:

  1. I” – is implied, since the floor is usually given by the chairman
  2. now” – is implied, since the speech is taking place in that moment
  3. give the floor” – is standard conference terminology
  4. to the distinguished” – is just a formal embellishment
  5. representative” – is implied, since all participants at that meeting were representing their countries
  6. of the republic of” – can be omitted as it applies to all countries, with the exception of perhaps a handful of kingdoms.
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The Complete Plain Words: wordiness

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