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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Brevity Is the Soul of Wit


1. Can you guess the meaning of this saying?
2. Do you know what it means to be "concise"? Why do you think this is important?


James talks with his student, a girl named Helen, about a paper she has written on Shakespeare's "Hamlet."

James: Good morning, Helen.
Helen: Good morning, James. I wanted to ask you about this paper.
James: Sure. Let's see...oh, yeah, see the comments in the margin? "Wordy," "Redundant," and so on?
Helen: Yes, I see them, but I don't know what the problem is.
James: The problem is, you often use more words than necessary.
Helen: For example?
James: Well, look at this sentence: "The reason why Hamlet died was because he couldn't make a decision."
Helen: What's wrong with that?
James: Try saying it this way: "Hamlet died because he was indecisive."
Helen: Oh, I see. Same idea, fewer words.
James: Exactly. Don't forget what Polonius said to Claudius and Gertrude: "Brevity is the soul of wit."
Helen: I remember that! It was funny, because in the speech where he said it, he used too many words too.
James: That's right. He didn't follow his own advice. But as he says, brevity, or "being brief," is one mark of intelligent speaking.
Helen: And writing!
James: You got it.


There are two issues to be considered when using a language. The first is communication. In other words, can you be understood?

The second is respect. You want people not only to understand you, but also to respect how well you use the language.

One of the markers of a sophisticated English speaker is how briefly he or she can state an idea. Look at these examples:
"my mother's house" instead of "the house of my mother"
"My friend and I are happy" instead of "My friend is happy, and I am happy, too"
These and other such expressions set apart the great speakers from the good ones.

While this is especially difficult when speaking, there is more opportunity to shape and condense language when writing.

More notes:
  • Wordy: This describes the use of too many words
  • Redundant: This is when a speaker or writer repeats things unnecessarily. In the example, "The reason why" equals "because"; a sentence doesn't need both.
  • indecisive: Note that James recommends using a pointed adjective instead of the phrase, "he couldn't make a decision."


Re-write the following sentences using fewer words. Suggested answers are below.

1. The majority of the people who wanted to visit were not allowed to go in.
2. When I want to know what you think, I'll ask you what you think.
3. You shouldn't use the word "never" in a sentence.
4. There's going to be a rainstorm tomorrow.
5. When I have some extra time, I like to read fiction books that tell the story of someone's life.
6. Please walk across the room and put the chair in the place where two walls join.
7. It is not difficult to drive a car.
8. She didn't tell the truth.
9. Write something on your calendar to remind you.
10. You are prohibited from smoking in the hallway.


If you can, try to talk about these questions in English with a friend. If not, try writing your answers.

1. Why is it important to use fewer words when possible?
2. Look at the exercise and the answers. How does each answer improve the original sentence?
3. Do you think it's important to learn to speak in a way that people respect? Why or why not?


These are just possible answers; there are many ways to make the sentences shorter.

1. Most of the visitors were turned away.
2. When I want your opinion, I'll ask for it.
3. Never say "never."
4. It's going to rain tomorrow.
5. I like to read novels in my free time.
6. Put the chair in the corner.
7. Driving is easy.
8. She lied.
9. Mark your calendar.
10. Don't smoke in the hallway.

This lesson is ©2012 by James Baquet. You may share this work freely. Teachers may use it in the classroom, as long as students are told the source (URL). You may not publish this material or sell it. Please write to me if you have any questions about "fair use."

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