Needless words

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I know I've been a long-time critic of everything in The Elements of Style, not least William Strunk's platitude that you should omit needless words. "Needless" is not defined even vaguely; nobody really writes in a way that sticks to the absolute minimum word count; and if neophyte writers could tell what was needless they wouldn't have to be handed this platitude (which they don't really know how to use anyway). But every now and then one really does see a case of a word that screams at you that it should have been left out. The University of Oxford has an official form on which this is the heading:

CLAIM FOR REIMBURSEMENT OF ALLOWABLE EXPENSES

You saw it too? Yes. My bet is that they do not bother to have a form for reimbursement of the other kind of expenses.

This is the most plangent case of a needless word I have seen recently. But comments are left open below just in case you have a challenger…



106 Comments

  1. Stan Carey said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 3:57 am

    A few gems I edited recently:

    blue in colour (→ blue)
    It is imperative that we must (→ We must)
    of physically greater volume (→ bigger)
    local items from the area (→ local items)
    The need for X is necessary (→ X is necessary)
    They self-regulated themselves (→ They regulated themselves)
    in ascending order from the highest to the lowest (→ in descending order)

  2. Tobias said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 4:05 am

    In Germany, you can find signs saying "Zutritt für Unbefugte verboten" = "No access for unauthorized people".

  3. Gabriel Petrie said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 4:45 am

    "innate tendency"
    "particular details"

  4. Pieter Kriel said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 5:08 am

    On the train: "Please remember to take your personal belongings with you."

  5. Marion said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 5:16 am

    There is no cause for undue alarm.

  6. Vanya said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 5:17 am

    You might be surprised at the sort of "expenses" people will try to get reimbursed. I take it that "allowable" here is meant as a reminder to claimants that the University has standards, and that claimants should think long and hard about whether their expense is allowable before they submit the form and make the accounting office determine the validity of their claim.

  7. Jeffrey Shallit said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 5:25 am

    How about this one?

    http://recursed.blogspot.ca/2008/05/pretentious-sign-contest.html

    "As a courtesy to our cleaning staff, we ask that patrons please dispose of waste by using the garbage receptacles provided"

    instead of

    "Please put trash in trash cans."

  8. EndlessWaves said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 5:30 am

    "Allowable expenses" seems to have a specific meaning in financial terms, see here for example:
    https://www.gov.uk/expenses-if-youre-self-employed/overview

  9. Jeff said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 5:40 am

    This is the last and final boarding call for flight xyz.
    (Heard at every US airport for every departure every day).

  10. AntC said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 5:44 am

    @EndlessWaves, so the allowable is not restrictive, but attributive. Or we might say hortative(?)

    Claim for Reimbursement of Expenses; and they'd better be Allowable or else!

  11. Neil Weinreb said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 6:14 am

    "At this particular point in time" = Now

  12. philip said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 6:20 am

    Pre-order your copy in advance.

  13. January First-of-May said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 7:14 am

    In Germany, you can find signs saying "Zutritt für Unbefugte verboten" = "No access for unauthorized people".

    PERSONNEL WHO ARE NOT AUTHORIZED TO BE IN THE HANGAR ARE NOT AUTHORIZED TO BE IN THE HANGAR.

    (In practice, it quite often happens that deleting the apparently needless words makes the actual meaning shift significantly. And in the more legal texts, it almost always creates an extra loophole not intended by the longer version's author.)

  14. leoboiko said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 7:25 am

    Y'all pointing out "needless" words and all I see is pragmatics and prosody (emphasis, authority, weight, rhythm…)

  15. S Frankel said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 7:37 am

    New York subway system has a condition condition: Due to a smoke condition on the tracks … Due to a fire condition …

  16. Zeppelin said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 7:44 am

    In German, I've seen the phrase "wir dürfen uns nicht auseinanderdividieren lassen" ("we can't let ourselves be divided apart") from a couple of politicians and political organisations in recent years.

    It sounds even clumsier than the English translation, because "dividieren" is normally only used in the mathematical sense, unlike English "divide". I wonder if it's an anglicism, with the "auseinander" added later as some sort of attempt at clarification…German Technocrat Speak does seem to be one of the main inroads for ill-advised anglicisms.

  17. Keith Ivey said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 7:53 am

    Do they have forms for reimbursement of things other than expenses? Seems like "Claim for Reimbursement" would be enough.

  18. gnaddrig said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 7:56 am

    @ January First-of-May: I guess what they are trying to say is Access only with explicit authorization. If you don't have that you must not enter., only that would be too long to put on a sign if you want the public to see, read and understand the message.

    @ Keith Ivey: Maybe, but then where do you put the allowable?

  19. Bill S said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 8:46 am

    "This [chart] will allow you to visually see the results." (The phrase "visually see" was repeated at least four times over the next half-hour, in a discussion of classroom visual aids. There was much 'utilization' going on).

  20. D.O. said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 8:57 am

    It is more interesting when words are not "needless", but when there is an apparent (but not necessarily real) contradiction. Like "Permitted loads are not permitted", discussed on LL some time ago.

  21. mollymooly said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 9:09 am

    "last and final [boarding call]" is a deliberative imitation of legal doublets. The true doublets arose when England was diglossic; the fakes just want the same air of authority.

  22. Weltanschauuung said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 9:19 am

    @ S Frankel: "Condition" is, as you say, a frequently-needless word. Weather announcers are seemingly trained to warn, not of "wind and unseasonable cold", but of "windy conditions and unseasonably cold temperatures".

  23. mike said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 9:21 am

    As Stan Carey notes, the detection and removal of needless words is the editor's daily lot. John McIntyre regularly posts examples of pleonasms he finds in his work. I routinely reduce phrases like "your own custom [thing]" and "your specific scenario"; a recent favorite was "ask if they have an existing relationship."

    The problem with the S&W advice, of course, is that it's devilishly difficult to edit one's own prose. When people produce these unneeded words, they obviously sounds fine in the mind's ear. Hence the need to have someone else read.

    As for the signs, what everyone else has said–emphasis, legal, etc. re: "Zutritt für Unbefugte verboten", I can imagine a discussion about whether "Unbefugte" was necessary ("But if we remove it, won't it sound like NO ONE can enter?"), and the final decision being made along the lines of more words == clearer. For better or worse.

  24. Weltanschauuung said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 9:23 am

    In my part of the world, houses come with "hot water heaters". We could analogously speak of "clean dish washers", but we don't.

  25. Guy said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 9:29 am

    Mr. Pullum leaves the comments open for once and he does it for what is apparently the purpose of trolling me.

  26. Doug Fisher said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 9:33 am

    One of my particular favorites is the TVism "an active search is underway." As opposed to an inactive search?

  27. ajay said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 9:40 am

    "In Germany, you can find signs saying "Zutritt für Unbefugte verboten" = "No access for unauthorized people"."

    But what's unnecessary about this? The point is to say that unlike most doors, which you can go through at will, this one is only for people with explicit permission to go through that particular door. "No Access" would be a different message – no one at all should go through this door, because it's dangerous, or there's a wall on the other side or something.

    Related:
    ARTHUR: Ladies and gentlemen, as you can see, our onboard transit process today has now reached its ultimate termination.
    CAROLYN: He means we've landed.
    ARTHUR: Yes. So as yourselves prepare for disemboarding, if I could kindly ask you to kindly ensure you retain all your personal items about your person throughout the duration of the disembarkation.
    CAROLYN: He means take your stuff with you.
    ARTHUR: In concluding, it's been a privilege for ourselves to conduct yourselves through the in-flight experience today, and I do hope you'll refavour ourselves with the esteem of your forth-looking custom going forward.
    CAROLYN: No idea.

  28. ajay said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 9:43 am

    "There is no cause for undue alarm."

    meet

    "Unnecessary force has been authorised in the apprehension of the Blues Brothers."

  29. Robert Coren said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 9:55 am

    Think of all the ink, space, and electrons that could be saved with the elimination of "free gift".

  30. Michael Johnson said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 10:05 am

    I'm not sure I agree. There's no fine for not overdue books, but there's also not a fine for books simpliciter, so many libraries list fines for overdue books, instead of fines for books simpliciter.

    Many of the complaints on this post seem wholly misguided. For example, one person is upset about "visually see," when it seems to be used to contrast seeing figures written down in prose or numbers on a slide vs. seeing them in a chart or diagram form. Maybe that's not the best way to draw the distinction, but it's not redundant or without justification.

    I'd hazard to conjecture that no words are necessary, and thus all technically needless, but that most serve some purpose, to varying degrees. I haven't seen many good counterexamples here.

  31. Mike said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 10:09 am

    @mollymooly — Good call on the legal doublet thing. I'm certain it's also due to a mangling of "first and final call," in which no words are redundant. Airplanes don't have first and final calls, but Greyhound buses do, especially in smaller stations where only one bus is leaving at a time.

  32. Mark P said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 10:29 am

    In Stan Carey's example of "physically greater volume" I agree that "physically" is unnecessary, but, depending on the context, "greater volume" might be more precise than "bigger." For example, if someone were discussing the density and volume of two objects, one might have greater volume but lower density than the other, thus having lower mass. "Bigger" is just ambiguous enough that I would prefer "greater volume" in that context.

  33. Ray said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 10:30 am

    my favorite was a sign on a wall that said DO NOT PARK HERE, and, underneath that, the braille version.

  34. Jen said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 10:55 am

    Physically greater volume as distinguished from audibly greater volume, no?

    Due alarm is presumably needed, or you wouldn't be prompted to do whatever needs to be done to mend the situation.

  35. Simon said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 11:04 am

    Where I work signs have recently appeared in the rest rooms proclaiming that they are "cleaned on a daily basis" – it irks me that they don't just say "cleaned daily". On reflection, I don't know why they suddenly want to tell me about the cleaning frequency.

    My suspicion is that a lot of these over-long statements arise from a perception that they sound more important/authoritative.

  36. bratschegirl said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 11:24 am

    I have nothing to add that's on-topic. I just wanted to have the experience of commenting on a post from Professor Pullum.

    [This, bratschegirl, is exactly the sort of thing that gives commenters a bad name. Consider yourself rebuked. —GKP]

  37. Rodger C said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 11:32 am

    We acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness. Including mass genocide.

  38. Buddha Buck said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 11:32 am

    I've often been amused by the famous Henry David Thoreau quote "Simplify, simplify". It seems to me to be one word too complex.

  39. DWalker said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 11:44 am

    Ah yes, "Please remember to take your personal belongings with you."

    In the old days, when people could smoke on airplanes (which I hated), I remember that one airline always used the phrase "Please extinguish all smoking materials" when the No Smoking sign came on.

    Who talks like that? I'll bet it's hard for those who don't speak English as a first language.

    I agree with most of what Prof. Pullum says about Strunk and White.

    However, for "Omit needless words", I did like the phrase from the book that went something like "A sentence should have no unnecessary words just as a machine should have no unnecessary parts".

    Which is true, and of course it's a circular definition.

    A word may be "necessary" to give a sentence beauty, grace, rhythm, and style even if it's not strictly necessary to convey meaning.

  40. Alex said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 11:45 am

    I agree with Vanya and others who have pointed out the potential utility and/or legal sense of "allowable expenses," and I would submit this example, a sign posted by the Seattle Housing Authority, as a challenger:

    No Trespassing
    Any Illegal Activity or Loitering is Prohibited in This Area

  41. DWalker said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 11:51 am

    "CLAIM FOR REIMBURSEMENT OF ALLOWABLE EXPENSES"

    I think "FOR" is one of the needless words. The heading should be:

    "REIMBURSEMENT CLAIM"

  42. Lugubert said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 11:53 am

    I translate manuals. In almost every one, there are instructions like Enter the needed settings, Connect the cable to its proper receptacle, Select the appropriate type, Add the correct amount of solvent, If necessary, you can edit the values.

  43. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 11:57 am

    Police officers stereotypically talk in this over-wordy/officialese-jargon style, e.g. saying "the vehicle was proceeding in a westerly direction" rather than (at the other extreme) "the car was heading west." Leaving aside the desire to impress ones audience (whether one succeeds or not) there is a plausible notion that redundancy may be useful in some oral communication contexts in case the listener misses a word or two (or you're talking over a crackly lo-fi police radio frequency). But that's specific to oral discourse and doesn't translate to signage. On the other hand, since a sign (or form) can't be asked to clarify itself, there's maybe a different design imperative to anticipate and preempt any clarifying questions that a reader might have, which will necessarily involve the presentation of further detail that is obvious in context (and thus redundant) to the savvier readers of the sign/form. Potential readers are presumably distributed along quite a range of savviness-versus-cluelessness and different sign/form designers may strike different balances (e.g. are you aiming at the median reader, or are you willing to waste the time of 90% of your readers in order to reduce confusion by the slowest-on-the-uptake 10%?).

  44. Rube said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 12:10 pm

    @J.W. Brewster: "Leaving aside the desire to impress ones audience (whether one succeeds or not) there is a plausible notion that redundancy may be useful in some oral communication contexts in case the listener misses a word or two …"

    I think that you've provided a good rationale for "last and final call". Given the typical airport scenario, where one is trying to make out words on a built-by-lowest-tenderer P.A. system, while wiping up a crying child or paying for four over-priced beers, every bit of information is gratefully accepted by the average traveller.

  45. Bean said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

    I imagine that there could be (or have been in the past) other CLAIM FOR REIMBURSEMENT… forms in the series: …OF PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT or …OF MOVING EXPENSES …OF HOSPITALITY EXPENSES. "Allowable expenses" also sounds like a Treasury Board phrase (http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/pol/index-eng.aspx).

    My current favourite is the one in the women's washroom at work:

    CAUTION: HOT WATER IS HOT

    but there's a back story. The old water heater was anemic and the water from the "hot" water tap was tepid at best. So you could use just the "hot" tap to wash your hands. Then they replaced the water and the water was startlingly hot. Hence the signs. But new people who didn't know the old water heater don't get it, of course, and think we're all stupid for needing such a sign up.

  46. William Berry said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 12:40 pm

    "plangent"?

    Is that the "loud and reverberating" or "expressive and plaintive" sense? Not being a smart-aleck here; genuinely curious.

  47. leoboiko said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 1:34 pm

    @Michael Jonson

    I'd hazard to conjecture that no words are necessary, and thus all technically needless, but that most serve some purpose, to varying degrees.

    I concur. "Physically greater volume" may have (arguably!) the same referential meaning as "bigger", but it's not the same speech act. It's longer, for one thing; and it's a sociolinguistic universal, or at least almost-universal, that longer forms sound more formal. The act of saying "thanks" is not the same act as saying "you have my sincere thanks and gratitude". In a world of social inequality and governmental control, people are constantly put down by the heavy language of bureaucracy, corporatespeak, technobabble; it's perfectly rational and understandable that they'd appropriate such social markers for their own purposes. "Of physically greater volume" is also weighed differently ; "physically" primes the discourse to highlight the object's tangible materiality ("and now we'll talk about its physical properties"), while "greater volume" foregrounds the three-dimensionality of "bigger"; one could use this e.g. when talking about needing more internal space, or larger carrying capacity.

    Of course, some speech acts are better than others for any specific purpose, and editors develop an ear for this, and their work do in fact improve texts. More often than not, reducing the word count does make texts clearer and more elegant. But that doesn't mean the words are "needless" or "pleonastic" (a very debatable concept); it just means that they were misapplied in that particular context. Therefore "omit needless words" reduces to "write better"; an empty principle if there ever was one.

    A lot of the examples I see here seem to misunderstand, or pointedly gloss over, or even mock, the writer's efforts to fit into some discursive context; specifically, when they use more or larger words to sound formal, to convey the weight of authority, or simply to fit in. If one wants to edit their attempts and turn them into better speech acts, that's great; but to do that, one has to reverse-engineer them, to understand and respect why they're using the "needless" or "redundant" words – what they're trying to achieve, which is never just convey abstract meaning – so as to build utterances that do the job better than theirs. The proper attitude should be one of empathy, not derision.

  48. Andrew Koontz-Garboden said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 1:36 pm

    My vote is for "any permitted" on UK rail tickets. Arguably, it's actually worse than the above in that it doesn't even have the (redundant) meaning of the most transparent interpretation.

  49. Victor Mair said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 2:11 pm

    Just saw this on a door at the Getty Research Institute:

    Emergency Access Only
    Audible Alarm Will Sound

  50. hector said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 2:15 pm

    "in ascending order from the highest to the lowest"

    — this sounds laughable taken out of context, but context is everything. For instance, the lower the temperature, the greater your chance of frostbite.

  51. Andrew Koontz-Garboden said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 2:16 pm

    Sorry. What I should have said is that the intended redundant meaning (any permitted route is permitted) is not the most obvious one. At least it was not to me. It was a real disappointment to learn that my ticket from Stockport to Manchester with a route marked "any permitted" did not allow me to go via London.

  52. Alain Turenne said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 2:26 pm

    En fait, effectivement, voilà…

  53. Chandra said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 2:40 pm

    On the GO Train, not only is it last and final, it's the last and final station stop. I don't normally mind a certain amount of wordiness and have been guilty of it myself, but this used to drive me crazy on my daily commute.

  54. Jerry Schwarz said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 2:42 pm

    I spent a few years in Scotland during the late 1970's. People would occasionally stop me and as if I had the "correct time". I was always tempted to say "my watch says X but I'm not sure it's correct."

  55. Yuval said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 3:21 pm

    I should really write a script to alert me when there's an open-comment-threaded GKP post :(

    [No, Yuval, you shouldn't. See my rebuke to bratschegirl above. I can turn comments off again if commenters misbehave, or have nothing to say. Except that I don't have the time. Come to think of it, I don't even have the time to type this. Internet comments management: the simple way to waste your life if you don't have a TV. —GKP]

  56. Bart said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 3:23 pm

    I don't find the opening example self-evidently deserving of mockery. I could imagine a context where it would be sensible.

    Suppose there was a congress of some kind. There might be two forms:

    Claim For Reimbursement Of Allowable Expenses
    Statement of All Expenses, Whether to be Reimbursed or Not

    The second form might be part of a survey to find out how much people spent getting to the congress – which might be useful information in deciding where to hold the congress next year.

  57. Aristotle Pagaltzis said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 3:36 pm

    I would think the redundancy-free version of the door sign would be "permission required to enter" or "no entrance without permission" or some such. The redundancy arises in phrasing the message in terms of a third-person actor, because then you have to specify who that is – you can't just say "someone is allowed to enter" –, but the group of actors is defined by the same fact that you wish to assert in the same statement – "he who is allowed to enter, is allowed to enter". The redundancy-free version avoids this by talking not about a third person (which it would have to specify), but (implicitly) about the reader: "you need permission to enter" / "you cannot enter without permission".

  58. Meliora said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 3:40 pm

    I've submitted claims, and been reimbursed, for "unallowable" expenses.

    Where I work, "Allowable" vs. "Unallowable" has a specific, but non-intuitive (and often misunderstood), meaning: on certain projects done for the government, the company is reimbursed by the government for costs, but only those that are defined as "allowable" by government policy.

    Employees on business travel will be reimbursed by the company, as defined by the company policy (which is less strict than the government policy).

    So, if I take a trip and I order a beer with my dinner, I have to itemize the beer separately from the rest of the bill, then flag the beer as "unallowable". I get reimbursed by the company for everything, including the (unallowable) beer, but the company uses the distinction if and when seeking reimbursement by the government.

  59. gnaddrig said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 4:19 pm

    @ leoboiko: A lot of the examples I see here seem to misunderstand, or pointedly gloss over, or even mock, the writer's efforts to fit into some discursive context; specifically, when they use more or larger words to sound formal, to convey the weight of authority, or simply to fit in. If one wants to edit their attempts and turn them into better speech acts, that's great; but to do that, one has to reverse-engineer them, to understand and respect why they're using the "needless" or "redundant" words – what they're trying to achieve, which is never just convey abstract meaning – so as to build utterances that do the job better than theirs. The proper attitude should be one of empathy, not derision.

    I agree. Writing anything in precise and correct language without any redundancy, in the right register and easy to understand (ideally by a wide range of readers) is actually quite difficult, sometimes impossible. You can be as good as they come, someone will always misunderstand you or find some loophole in your text. So empathy instead of derision sounds fine.

  60. Bathrobe said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 5:13 pm

    Legal language:

    "Without let or hindrance"

  61. Bathrobe said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 5:15 pm

    I spent a few years in Scotland during the late 1970's. People would occasionally stop me and as if I had the "correct time". I was always tempted to say "my watch says X but I'm not sure it's correct."

    Perhaps the implication is that they themselves don't have the correct time…

  62. John said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 5:44 pm

    Here's a one:
    "very unique".

  63. Bloix said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 6:03 pm

    Presumably "allowable expenses" is a term defined either elsewhere on the form or by reference.
    I have said before on this blog that legal writing is written in order to prevent people from trying to misunderstand it, often at the expense of concision. Reimbursement of expenses is an area that many people are eager to misunderstand, leading those who write the rules to go overboard to make them as impossible to misunderstand as they can.

  64. Richard Hershberger said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 6:03 pm

    I'm with Meliora. It is a very good bet that "allowable expenses" is a defined term of art in context. Remove "allowable" and you are opening the door to people seeking reimbursement for the cost of their booze, blow, and hookers.

  65. maidhc said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 6:03 pm

    The school near here has signs up: THE FOLLOWING ACTIVITIES ARE PROHIBITED ON SCHOOL GROUNDS followed by a list of things such as smoking, consuming alcohol, allowing dogs to run at large, etc. One item on the list is ILLEGAL DRUGS. What's different about this one item? All the other activities may be legal in some other place, but illegal drugs are illegal everywhere. Why not expand the list to include murder, burglary, arson, etc.? Or like Alex, "Any Illegal Activity".

  66. Bloix said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 6:12 pm

    "correct time"
    There was a time,before the invention of the cheap quartz watch, that a watch that kept really good time was an expensive item. An ordinary watch would gain or lose a few minutes a day, and if you hadn't corrected it by your radio or a public clock you might miss your bus. And you had to wind it every night, which you might forget if you'd had a few. So it wasn't uncommon to ask someone for the "correct time" even if you had a watch on.

    I don't recall exactly when I got my first quartz watch (they were expensive at first), but I do remember using the expression "correct time" when asking for the time – certainly into the early seventies.

  67. Bloix said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 6:14 pm

    "ILLEGAL DRUGS"
    Some states impose additional penalties for dealing drugs near schools.
    http://sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Drug-Free-Zone-Laws.pdf

  68. Bloix said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 6:22 pm

    "I have nothing to add that's on-topic. I just wanted to have the experience of commenting on a post from Professor Pullum:"

    Yes, I seem to gone a little overboard from the excitement of it all. Thanks very much, Professor P.

    [STOP DOING THIS. These are not comments; they are metacomments. (And don't let me see any metametacomments below, or I will really get irritable. You wouldn't like me when I'm irritable.) —GKP]

  69. Ray said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 7:00 pm

    I've always wondered about my monthly electric bill, which says CURRENT CHARGES. are they trying to be funny or what?

  70. Another Frank said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 8:09 pm

    There is this old story about the shop owner who engages a sign painter to create a mural advertisement. The owner's concept involves a picture of nests and hens above the words "In this shop we sell fresh eggs". The painter proceeds to explain, in great detail, why the advertisement would be more effective if it consisted of a single word – "eggs" – with everything else shown, element-by-element, to be unnecessary. The shop owner, thoroughly impressed, exhorts the professional to proceed with this bolder, cleaner, simpler, monosyllabic plan, to which the painter, philosophical to a fault, replies: but still… why sell eggs?

  71. Nathan Emmett said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 8:17 pm

    I once consulted for a private English Language school who's tagline, under their school name was:
    I'm self-Studying English for Myself!

    – Does that count?

    They resisted any changes to this strenuously, even the heterodox capitalisation – I suspect to avoid the costs involved.

  72. Joshua said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 9:18 pm

    @Bean: I think the sign in the washroom could have been improved by adding an additional word:

    CAUTION: HOT WATER IS VERY HOT

    That would serve as an appropriate, non-tautological warning.

  73. Viseguy said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 9:26 pm

    On the Staten Island Ferry, when a ferry is taken offline for maintenance, the public announcement says, "This boat is temporarily out of service." As if we might otherwise think it was about to be broken up for scrap.

  74. Michael Watts said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 9:44 pm

    maidhc, many summer camps specify in their terms that "illegal activity" constitutes prohibited behavior. The reasoning there is identical to the reasoning behind a school prohibiting illegal drugs: it means that someone engaging in the prohibited behavior may face sanctions from the camp (or school) as well as from the government. A school might suspend or expel a student for possessing illegal drugs, because that is contrary to school policy; it won't do the same for e.g. public urination.

  75. Michael Watts said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 9:46 pm

    Joshua, "HOT WATER IS HOT" is already non-tautological. It's a warning that the water you get from the tap labeled "hot", or "HOT WATER", is in fact HOT. Calling something "hot water" isn't enough to make it hot.

  76. Christopher Henrich said,

    May 20, 2016 @ 10:48 pm

    "Omit needless words" is a trick! It's a stratagem! There is a kind of gormless student who seems to believe that classroom success consists in unthinking obedience to the instructor's instruction. Here is an instruction which appears to tell them what to do but doesn't… which words are really needless?? – They are inveigled into thinking for themselves about – e.g. – did I really need to say "really" ?

  77. AndrewD said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 1:47 am

    @ Doug Fischer
    The alternative to active search is passive search e.g active antisubmarine search is sonar, passive is listening-in tactical terms they can have very different consequences for the searcher

  78. Jussi Piitulainen said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 2:10 am

    The winner must be the needless. Omit words.

  79. gnaddrig said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 4:17 am

    Yes, Jussi Piitulainen, and then Enjoy The Silence…

  80. Daniel Wolf said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 4:58 am

    There's the old joke about the fish seller whose new sign reads FRESH FISH SOLD HERE. A friend comes by and, instead of admiring it, immediately criticizes it for its needless words. "Here? You don't need that. Everyone knows that you're in business here, and not some other place. Cross out that "here." Sold? We all know you're selling this stuff, you're not renting it out and you're definitely not giving it away. The "sold" goes, too. Fresh? Looking at your stock, I'd say that the point is debatable, but you certainly don't have any competitors selling old fish or spoiled fish, so leave out that "fresh." And that leaves "Fish" which is totally unnecessary, 'cause we can smell your shop from four blocks away.

  81. DaveM said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 7:07 am

    @Ray: Applying Ohm's Law , I think we can say that for a given voltage, your current charges increase as your resistance to paying them diminishes.

  82. Preferred Customer said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 7:09 am

    Bloix,

    A drug  is any substance other than food, that when inhaled, injected, smoked, consumed, absorbed via a patch on the skin or dissolved under the tongue causes a physiological change in the body. According to this definition nicotine, caffeine, cannabis and sugar are drugs. The legal sources then define some if them illegal.

    Also, drugs that are listed illegal, can often be used legally. Some drugs, say ecstasy (MDMA) have no legal use (to my knowledge), but substances like benzodiazepines, morphine and so on are legal if you have a prescription from a doctor, and illegal otherwise.

    Legal language is less a language and more like an engineered construct of terminology and logic: definitions and phrases must often follow the source material exactly and list everything that might have legal bearing. Though it would be nice to write understandable text, it is not always possible.

  83. Ray said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 8:24 am

    @DaveM: LOL

    another one that's always bothered me is "final destination."

  84. Brett said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 9:34 am

    @Ray: Both "current charges" and "final destination" are useful. The first distinguishes new costs that have been charges to your account during the most recent billing period from older charges that you have not yet paid and so still appear on your bill. The second identifies a location as being where a journey ends; that is to be contrasted with an intermediate destination, where you may stop over briefly to do something, before continuing on.

  85. Matt said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 12:02 pm

    Going with what Bloix said at May 20, 2016 @ 6:03 pm.

    Maybe the form for expenses other than "allowable expenses" requires an explanation as to why they should make a discretionary exception to reimburse your ordinarily not-allowable expense?

  86. Kimmilyn said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 1:26 pm

    @ Zeppelin: Although I don't speak German, "auseinanderdividieren" sounds suspiciously to me like "divide asunder", which sent me right back to my childhood Sunday school days.

    According to Bible study tools dot com (http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/asunder/)
    "[Asunder] occurs 22 times in the King James Version, 13 in Old Testament and 9 in the New Testament. It is found in combination with break (twice), burst, cleave (twice), depart, cut (six times), divide (three times), drive, part, pluck, put (twice), rend, saw. These are the translation of 9 Hebrew, and 4 Greek words."

    Out of this list of collocations, it seems to me that "asunder" is most needless with "divide". And not at all with the other verbs.

  87. Paul Konigstein said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 10:16 pm

    Tuna fish

  88. Robert Coren said,

    May 22, 2016 @ 9:00 am

    "Hot water is hot": Perhaps they could have made the meaning clear to all by saying "hot water is hotter than it used to be".

    The airline formula "wherever your final destination may be" has always given me the creeps. I'm really hoping not to reach my final destination in an airplane.

  89. Colin said,

    May 22, 2016 @ 10:27 am

    On German trains you will often see "ggf. reserviert" ('possibly reserved') above the seats. On the face of it, this is useless, but what it actually means is that there's been some problem getting the data on which seats are reserved, so you should be alert in case someone with a reservation boards the train later. A seat that is definitely not reserved will typically have a blank display above it (although if they are all blank, this probably indicates a more serious breakdown of electronics).

  90. Rodger C said,

    May 22, 2016 @ 11:44 am

    @Paul Konigstein: I associate "tuna fish" (and "pizza pie") with my parents' generation (b. ~1920), to whom these foodstuffs were new and seemed to need explanation.

  91. Simon said,

    May 22, 2016 @ 12:12 pm

    Mathematical equations? Not sure what other types there might be.

  92. Charles said,

    May 22, 2016 @ 12:22 pm

    What word or words are "extra" is very hard to determine, sometime, in practice. I admit that I find the professor's exhortation charming and persuasive. But, it's hard to implement. To know which words are "needless", you need to know what your intended readers (and unintended readers in some cases) know and how they read. Knowing that is impossible, at least for now.

  93. MikeA said,

    May 22, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

    @Preferred Customer

    I believe there is a study (soon to be?) underway on the use of MDMA for treatment of PTSD. Given that, your parenthetical (to my knowledge) is not needless. I actually made this comment to remark that I had not previously noticed that parentheticals are a way to mark "I am not quite sure these words are needed".

  94. Bloix said,

    May 22, 2016 @ 3:37 pm

    @Charles – yes, you don't want to explain too much – which is condescending – while not being too terse – which is confusing. But I don't think that's what S&W were talking about.

    In drafting an email recently, I found myself noting the absence of "written documentation" of a certain company policy. I believe that's the sort of thing that S&W were advising against.

  95. Robert Coren said,

    May 22, 2016 @ 7:08 pm

    In my (present) household, "tuna fish" means canned tuna; the fresh fish is just "tuna".

  96. Bloix said,

    May 22, 2016 @ 10:17 pm

    When I was growing up, there was no such thing as fresh tuna. There was only tuna fish.

  97. ajay said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 8:10 am

    I spent a few years in Scotland during the late 1970's. People would occasionally stop me and as if I had the "correct time". I was always tempted to say "my watch says X but I'm not sure it's correct."

    Possibly because they wanted to make it clear that they were asking "what time is it?" and not "would you like to have sex?" (As in the time-honoured Soho exchange of "do you have the time?" "yes, if you've got the inclination").

  98. ajay said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 8:12 am

    "On the GO Train, not only is it last and final, it's the last and final station stop."

    Perhaps there's another non-station stop beyond it (i.e. some sort of terminus or maintenance shed).

  99. Bloix said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 10:31 am

    "Station stop" is an example of a technical term bleeding into communications with customers.
    To the system operators, any cessation of motion anywhere on the track for whatever reason is a "stop." All stops must be monitored in order to avoid accidents.
    A station is not necessarily a stop because trains can and do go through stations without stopping (e.g. when being taken out of service).
    Because communication with drivers is by radio, terminology must be precise and unambiguous.
    So the operators need a term that means a scheduled stop in a station, and the term is "station stop."
    We customers don't need that term, but it has migrated over to announcements to passengers.

  100. wanda said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 1:14 pm

    Re: illegal drugs: Perhaps the schools was trying to say that legal drugs were permitted. This is not always the case in schools- when I was growing up, schools in my area had a policy that all medications must be controlled by a school nurse. After all, it was only in 2009 that the Supreme Court of the US ruled that strip-searching a 13 year old girl for ibuprofen was unconstitutional, and even that ruling said that the search would have been OK if it had stopped with the girl's backpack and outer clothing.

  101. John Chambers said,

    May 24, 2016 @ 8:20 am

    When asked whether I'm using any drugs, I'll often say that I had coffee with breakfast (or lunch). I've found that, even with cops or airline security folks, this usually gets a grin, as it does with medical people. If not, casually remarking about not wanting them to think I'm hiding anything will often work.

    It is sorta the opposite of the legal use of overly-redundant repetitive phrasing to make sure people can't find a loophole to hide in.

  102. Chandra said,

    May 24, 2016 @ 3:27 pm

    @ajay – There isn't; in fact, the tracks themselves end at the Oshawa station (the last-and-final-station-stop in question, where I used to disembark).

    @Bloix – Thanks for the background info. I figured there was something like that going on, but it still unreasonably irked me.

  103. Xenobio said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 1:57 pm

    "Hot water is hot" reminds me of the sign at the ayam penyet (smashed fried chicken) stall at the National University of Singapore's Science faculty canteen which says (iirc) "Caution: Chili is very hot". Which might seem dumb as hell, but if you think you like chili sauce but haven't encountered Indonesian sambal before, you need that warning.

  104. Rick said,

    May 26, 2016 @ 12:43 am

    Co-mingled always bugs me.

  105. Jimbino said,

    May 26, 2016 @ 12:27 pm

    If you're at the second stop, the first stop was the last stop, though it wasn't the final stop. If the train is moving, the first stop might be the final stop. First sometimes means next and last the opposite of next. Same for boarding announcements. "Confused? Wait for the first clarification."

  106. Abdol said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 5:32 pm

    Scolding "allowable" here runs counter to the idea that language expresses thought — a productive entity. Like technology, language grows in the course of time. If you dump on the use of "allowable" in this case, you should reject a taxonomy of linguistics into "cognitive linguistics", "generative linguistics", and "functional theories of grammar" as well. Looks like all three come from the same neighborhood.

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