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Greenville Business Magazine

Avoid The Sin Of Pleonasm

Nov 01, 2017 01:27PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Dr. Henry Price

No thinking business should be willing to give its competition an advantage, yet many do. They give their competitors an edge because they don’t exercise enough care in the written messages they send out.

French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal once said in a letter to a friend: “I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter.” He obviously understood the value of brevity in writing and knew that achieving it takes time.

There are many sins writers can commit. Some are major sins, such as an error in fact, a grammar blunder, or a spelling mistake — all of which can make a reader question your smarts. But one of the relatively minor problems can be just as deadly as a major one — and that is the sin of “pleonasm.”

Now, there’s a word that most people don’t have in their vocabularies and would require them to resort to a quick dash to a dictionary to ascertain the proper definition. In fact, the preceding sentence is a good example of “pleonasm,” which means “using more words than necessary.” The first sentence could have read: “Don’t know the definition? Check your dictionary.”

Most people don’t like to receive a document that goes on and on. Often, they’ll drop it in the circular file rather than try to figure out what the point is. A little thought can keep your efforts from being tossed in the trash. Which of the following would you use?

“despite the fact that” or “although”
 “due to the fact that” or “because”
 “during the period from” or “from”
 “for the purpose of” or “for” or “to”
 “in the event that” or “if”
 “a sufficient number of” or “enough”
 “at the present time” or “now”
 “in the immediate vicinity of” or “near”

And it’s not just substituting a word for a phrase that saves space. Pay attention to the words you are using. When we talk, we use “buy,” but when we write, it becomes “purchase”; we say “try,” but write “attempt”; “ask” becomes “request”; “use” becomes “utilize”; “get” becomes “obtain.”

Whatever you are writing, the very best first step you can take is to lock firmly in your mind exactly what it is you want this piece of writing to accomplish. If you have thought carefully through what you want to say, it’s a lot easier to be concise. In one of the courses I taught at the University of South Carolina, I used essay exams when I gave tests. Almost invariably, the answers from the students who really knew the material were shorter than the answers of those students who didn’t have as good a command of it.

A friend of mine once received a mailing that had the following paragraph in the CEO’s column: “As the Chairman of this year’s Total Sustainable Resources Campaign, I am pleased to report to all members that we have now exceeded this year’s campaign goal of $375,000! The final number was announced at the Victory Celebration on September 18th — $391,000. It was the success of the Silent and Live Aucion (yes, that’s the way it was spelled in the original) at this year’s Annual Gala that has put us slightly above our goal.”

That’s 65 words. The paragraph could have said: “As the Chairman of this year’s Total Sustainable Resources Campaign, I am pleased that we have exceeded our goal of $375,000 by $16,000! It was the Silent and Live Auction at the annual gala that put us over the top.” That’s 40 words. It’s shorter; it’s easier to read; and it gets to the point.

Words can help sell. A little attention to brevity by you and your writers might pay big dividends.

Dr. Price is a writing expert with Sam E. McCuen and Associates and retired as interim dean of the then College of Journalism & Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina. He can be reached at 803-776-5565 or by email at [email protected]