Strategies for avoiding tedious repetition

Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carillo

For everyone who’d like to get rid of the unpleasantly bureaucratic tone of their English, I recently posted in Jose Carillo’s English Forum an essay that I wrote for this column way back in 2004. In that essay, “Phrases desirable and phrases abstruse,” I observed that bureaucrats, lawyers, and not a few academicians use a lot of officious stock phrases, among them “by virtue of,” “with reference to,” “in connection with,” “with regard to,” “in order to,” “with respect to,” “in line with,” and—perhaps the most irksome of all—“this is to inform you that” for both bad and good news and everything in-between.

I said that these phrases make their English sound so highhanded and even threatening, but we learn to tolerate them because they are part of their professional jargon. The problem though is that through repeated exposure to these stock phrases, we eventually appropriate them in our own writing and speech without even realizing it. Indeed, many of us in time begin to sound like bureaucrats, lawyers, and academicians ourselves. Their jargon permeates not only our conversations with our friends and coworkers but also our own memos, letters, and reports.

I then argued that we should avoid those officious stock phrases like the plague, that we shouldn’t allow tradition and peer-group pressure to tyrannize us into using them against our will, and that in business and in our personal lives, we should instead aim to write and speak in more concise, more pleasant, and more friendly English.

That essay drew the following response from a Tanzania-based Forum member who goes by the username Mwita Chacha:

“I agree that the best way to effectively get our ideas across is by making our sentences as precise as possible. But as a beginning writer, I sometimes feel reluctant to use a word more than two times in the same writing. That’s why I’m sometimes tempted to alternate, say, “about” with unpleasant bureaucratic phrases like “with regard to,” “with reference to,” and “as regards.” Admittedly, they sound standoffish and tend to get in the way of clear communication, but I think they help in many ways to eradicate repetition in the prose. Is there any better tactic of getting rid of repetition?”

This question gives me an opportunity to break new ground in my advocacy for plain and simple English, so I would like to share my reply to Mwita Chacha with everyone desirous of having a better and more pleasant command of it:

The repeated use of a particular word in writing is not bad per se; it’s the dysfunctional overuse of that word that has to be studiously avoided. And I wouldn’t use the word “tactic” to describe such studious avoidance, for a tactic seems too fleeting and too short-term an approach for dealing with unpleasant overrepetition. Instead, I’d go for the word “strategy” to describe the more methodical and wide-ranging way for achieving that objective.

To come up with such a strategy, we first need to distinguish between the two general types of words in English and to understand the matter of language register and tonality.

The two general types of words in English are, of course, the content words and the function words. The content words are the carriers of meaning of the language, and they consist of the nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and interjections. The function words are the logical operators of the language, and they consist of the prepositions, the conjunctions (coordinating conjunctions and subordinating conjunctions), and the conjunctive adverbs. In a class of their own are the articles “a,” “an,” and “the,” which many grammarians consider as neither content words nor function words.

Among the content words, nouns are the most amenable to substitution with other words as a strategy for avoiding tedious repetition.
(Second of three parts next week)

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at Follow me at @J8Carillo.


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