A waste of a word isn't always a sin

At one time or another, every editor has railed against redundancy.

My first boss, the editor/historian Douglas Southall Freeman, had a motto on his office wall: “Words are precious! Waste them not!”

He preached the gospel of Cornell's professor Will Strunk: “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words.”

The strictures are admirable, but they beg a question: What words are “wasted,” and which words are “unnecessary”?

Such editorial decisions are usually easy. A staff writer in The Washington Post said that the troubles of outfielder Barry Bonds “bespeak an old cliche.” A Post columnist quoted at length from “a 47-page sworn affidavit.” The Post's man on Wall Street noted that “the day's positives and negatives seemed to cancel each other out.”

No new cliches wanted

Now we sophisticated folk know that every cliche is old, every affidavit must be sworn, and when something is canceled, it surely must be canceled out.

Such redundancies are pimples on our pretty prose. The New York Times informed us last month about a new word game. It permits players to create “an exact replica” of a Scrabble board. A promotional letter comes to hand from Robert Thompson, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. The Journal this month will market a new magazine that will be “quite unique.” Finally we note a report from Slate's man at the Olympics: Sprinter Usain Bolt of Jamaica undoubtedly will be an inspiration to his “fellow countrymen.” Aaaarrgh!

Not all pruning necessary

Is every redundancy a vile redundancy? Is newsprint so costly and space so precious that every “unnecessary” word must be pruned? Well, yes. But then again, no.

Redundancy is a judgment call. In his magisterial “Modern American Usage,” Bryan Garner alerts us to a string of 33 familiar phrases beginning with “absolute necessity” and ending with “visible to the eye.” Most of his targets clearly deserve anathema – free gift, future forecast, pair of twins, merge together.

I am not so sure about others. Should we ban “actual fact”? What about “pause for a moment”? Is anything sorely amiss in “temporary reprieve” and “still continues to”? A persuasive argument can be made that some redundancies are benign. An extra word or syllable often will help the flow of a sentence. There's nothing good to be said of fatty prose, but there's a lot to be said for the well- rounded phrase.

The ‘enormity' of misuse

Moving on! Let us award a tsk-tsk or two to TV anchorman Charles Gibson. On a recent evening he remarked upon the “enormity” of Barack Obama's nomination. Trouble is, the noun “enormity” carries heavy baggage. Its first definition is “an outrageous, improper, vicious or immoral act; the quality or state of being monstrous.” Is Obama's candidacy “enormous”? Surely not.

Tribute to a lexicographer

I can't sign off this week without a word of tribute for Laurence Urdang, who died last month at 81. He ranked among the nation's foremost lexicographers. Those of us who write for a living will be forever indebted to the gentleman. He served as managing editor for the first edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language. I turn to it every working day of my life.

Without Urdang's wide-reaching scholarship, I never would have met “galeophilia,” an excessive fondness for cats. It has enabled me to say, to a small black feline of our dear acquaintance, “Cleopatra, you're the object of our galeophilia!” And now eat your chopped liver.