The best way is not always the shortest.


My wife called something to my attention  in the New York Times this morning. She had a problem with the second paragraph in the following story:

“On Eve of Trial, Discovery of Carlson Texts Set Off Crisis Atop Fox”

By Jim Rutenberg, Jeremy W. Peters, and Michael S. Schmidt

The New York Times

April 26, 2023

The second paragraph read:

Private messages sent by Mr. Carlson that had been redacted in legal filings showed him making highly offensive and crude remarks that went beyond the inflammatory, often racist comments of his prime-time show and anything disclosed in the lead-up to the trial.

I think I know why the sentence ended up the way it did. Because of newspaper-writing conventions regarding conciseness. The rule or standard is: Get rid of as many words as you can whenever and wherever they can be omitted (without omitting key facts or becoming unintelligible).

But there is a problem here.

comments OF HIS PRIME-TIME SHOW is vague and fuzzy. Were they comments that Carlson alone made (this is implied, but it could also include comments made by guests/interviewees)? Were they comments that he spoke or that were posted on the screen in bullet point fashion? In my mind it’s too vague. And awkwardly worded. It seems that comments ON his prime-time show would be better (sounds better to the ear). But then that’s not clear, because it could be anyone’s comments.

The best way to say it (undoubtedly) is comments made by Carlson on his prime-time show. This adds three words (the phrase made by Carlson on replaces the word of).



My post

regarding Professor Strunk’s admonition, “Omit Needless Words.” (or, are long, complex sentences bad?)

regarding Professor Strunk’s admonition, “Omit Needless Words.” (or, are long, complex sentences bad?)

is pertinent here.

I quoted Professor Brooks Landon in his lecture ““Grammar and Rhetoric” (lecture 2, “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft”; The Great Courses/The Teaching Company).

Unless the situation demands otherwise, sentences that convey more information are more effective than those that convey less. Sentences that anticipate and answer more questions that a reader might have are better than those that answer fewer questions. Sentences that bring ideas and images into clearer focus by adding more useful details and explanation are generally more effective than those that are less clearly focused and that offer fewer details.

Many of us have been exposed over the years to the idea that effective writing is simple and direct, a term generally associated with Strunk and White’s legendary guidebook The Elements of Style, or we remember some of the slogans from that book, such as, “Omit needless words.” … [Stunk concluded] with this all important qualifier: “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 he make every word tell.” … Strunk’s concern is specifically with words and phrases that do not add propositions to the sentence [e.g., “owing to the fact that” instead of “since”].” … “Omit needless words” is great advice, but not when it gets reduced to the belief that shorter is always better, or that “needless” means any word without which the sentence can still make sense.



My journalism school instructor, New York Times city reporter Maurice (Mickey) Carroll, taught me to tighten up my stories. His editing was invaluable. Here is an example from one of my assignments.


So I understand and appreciate the need for conciseness in newspaper reporting. But I also think Professor Landon’s astute observations should be kept in mind.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   April 27, 2023

2 thoughts on “The best way is not always the shortest.

  1. J.M.James

    Roger, you have made a sound case of how the sentence should have been written, using how it sounds to the ear and bringing in several experts on writing. Good job.



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