Know the rules, but use judgment, too

Every critic of the writing art, most memorably Professor William Strunk of Cornell, has inveighed against redundancy. E.B. White quoted him in “The Elements of Style.” Let us listen up.

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Sounder advice seldom has been delivered — but one asks: When is a word unnecessary?

An editor's annoyances

Somewhere in his opinions Chief Justice John Marshall remarked upon that adjective. Necessity, he said, comes in degrees: A thing may be necessary, or absolutely necessary, or absolutely, positively, indispensably necessary!

These ruminations are prompted by a letter from Mike McCusker, a retired copy editor now living in Las Vegas. He is irked by such familiar terms as “new record,” “fellow teammate” and “extradited back.” He is especially irked by “underground tunnel” and “fellow classmates.” Informed that Sen. McCain had a smile “on his face,” he reasonably inquires: “Where else?”

He writes: “I am especially unfond of the stupid employment of ‘different,' as in the candidate who reaches across different boundaries, the wildfires that burn in 11 different states, the movie star who visits four different doctors, and the defendant who faces trial on 11 different counts.”

Every reader of these ruminations surely has a list of comparable offenses, but let me insert a word of caution. Not all redundancies are useless redundancies. Not every reader is as well-informed as we writers. Nothing is wrong with adding a tassel to the lamb chop.

Changing the subject: This week's new word — new, that is, on me — is “barista.” It turned up on July 2 in The Wall Street Journal in a report that Starbucks was eliminating 12,000 jobs. “Some baristas will get jobs at other stores.” The mavens of Merriam-Webster logged it in 1982, but no other lexicographer has picked it up. As you will have deduced, a barista is “a person who makes and serves coffee (as espresso) to the public.” The noun has Italian origins, so she's a bar-ees-ta with the accent on the “ees.”

What's politics' number?

Moving on: USA Today noted editorially in May that “the politics of judicial appointments HAS been getting disturbingly more polarized.” Is “politics” singular or plural? Grammatically speaking, the noun can take whatever number the writer pleases. In his “Modern American Usage,” Bryan Garner comments: “Today ‘politics' is more commonly singular than plural, e.g., ‘politics is a dirty business,' although formerly the opposite was true.”

The general rule is to use a singular verb when we're writing about politics as an art or a science, but if we're talking about dirty tricks, such politics ARE contemptible.

Finally, a tut-tut to Anna Quindlen, writing recently in Newsweek. She was reminiscing about political summers past. She recalled the summer in Chicago “when the American ideal of dissent seemed like a preposterous lie.” And there was that summer of Nixon's abdication “when the American ideal of principled leadership seemed like a laughable fiction.”

Seemed like? Seemed like! Come now! Quindlen is much too gifted a writer to lapse into this tautologous redundancy. Those ideals simply “seemed.” They didn't seem LIKE anything else.

Tautologous redundancies, needless to say, are the very worst kind.