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Verbal Energy

In order to omit needless words and cut deadwood

Wherein the Monitor’s language columnist vents a bit on redundancies she loves to hate, but also warns wordsmiths against turning into 'search-and-replace' editors.

By Ruth Walker / March 28, 2013



I was reviewing the work of an esteemed colleague, collating her corrections of our manuscript and those of our author, when I noticed a lot of striking through of the first two words of a usually unremarkable three-word phrase: "in order to."

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Hmm, she seems not to like "in order," I thought. At all.

There was perhaps a bit of professional jealousy involved. My colleague obviously had a spiffier version than I of our annotation software. Hers let her strike through offending words incontrovertibly, as with a red ballpoint and a ruler. Take that! And that!

But back to "in order to": Is it always deadwood?

As it happens, Copyediting, the newsletter, ran an item recently on this raging controversy in its weekly tips column, and took a nuanced position. In a sentence such as, "In order to control class sizes, the district will also place seven portable classrooms at the four schools," the "in order" should be trimmed, in the great Strunk & White tradition of omitting needless words.

But the Copyediting columnist, Erin Brenner, cited Bryan Garner's "Modern American Usage" as saying that "in order to," while wordy, can be useful in sentences in which there is already an infinitive.

To cite Mr. Garner's own example: "The controversy illustrates how the forces of political correctness pressure government to grow in size and arbitrariness in order to pursue a peculiar compassion mission."

Ms. Brenner, though, thinks there's more to it than that. "In order to" isn't just an extra little verbal ruffle; it's an established idiom meaning "for the purpose of." It's a much-used idiom at that. Often the "in order" is out of order, but sometimes it's needed.

For example: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union..."

That's my example, not Brenner's; but the sense of "purpose" comes through there – along with the repetition of the three "or" sounds ("order ... form ... more"). And the rhythm would be wrong without "in order."

Another editor I've much admired once commented: "You don't want to be a 'search-and-replace' editor." That is, do more for your writers than just execute a string of reflexive deletions.

But I can also hear, with the ear of memory, other editors I've worked with over the years and the redundancies they have pointed out to me: "reason why," as in, "I asked him the reason why he looked so glum." Usually either "reason" or "why" on its own suffices. Or "outside of": "Outside" alone is generally all you need.

The "or not" of "whether of not" is often, though not always, redundant. It's not needed here: "The board is to decide tonight whether or not to fire the president." But it is useful in, for instance, the sentence, "Whether or not he gets the job, he'll still need some new clothes."

I suppose I have redundancies I love to hate, too: "track record" where "record" alone would serve, for instance.

My newest pet peeve is the Roman numeral "I" some are attaching to the name of the new pope. Stop it, everyone, right now, before it becomes a habit. It's entirely unnecessary. He will be Francis I only after he's gone, and a new pope takes the name Francis II. And given that it's taken a couple of millenniums for the Roman Catholic Church to have its first Pope Francis, we needn't hold our breath for a second one anytime soon.

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