The New York Times violates
    Strunk and White’s first rule

A case study of a failure to omit needless words.

Consider a sentence from the New York Times editorial criticizing George W. Bush for his habit of making (mostly by proxy) reckless accusations that his critics are unpatriotic:

It reflects badly on the president’s character that in this instance, he’s putting his own ambition ahead of the national good.

The sentiment is unexceptionable. After all, if the President (who sometimes thinks that America can’t win the war on terror) were to succeed in convincing our enemies abroad that John Kerry is on their side and the country divided about whether (as opposed to how) to fight them, his words would embolden them.

But the Times editorialist signally violates Strunk & White’s first rule of style: “Omit needless words.” (He’s also one comma shy of a pair, but let that be.)

What purpose is served, for example, by specifying “in this instance”? Are there other instances in which Mr. Bush has failed to put his own ambition ahead of the national good?

And why specify “his own” ambition? Is he likely to serve anyone else’s?


— Why “ahead of” rather than “before”?

— “The public good” is longer and weaker than “country.”

— “It reflects badly on the President’s charater that” is needlessly prolix.

The sentence could be strengthened by being shortened, and split into two:

“George Bush is a scoundrel. He puts ambition before country.”

See? Ten words instead of twenty-one, with increased force.

Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!

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.

The Elements of Style

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: