Brevity Definitions

Shakespeare wrote that brevity is the soul of wit. What is brevity? Why is it the soul of wit? And which things damage brevity?

Brevity is efficiency. It brings to mind shortness, but shortness isn’t right. Compact is much better. No meaning is lost. Thoughts aren’t left out.

Brevity is the soul of wit because wit is a message that pleases and the more compact a message, the more likely to please.

That much is well known. Less discussed are the specific things that destroy brevity. These are:


Redundancies are the repetition of the same thoughts without added meaning. “In the morning at 7 a.m.” is redundant. We could delete the “a.m.” or “in the morning” without losing meaning. Note, however, that not all repetition is redundant. Consider “I need you. I need you. I need you.” The repetition adds meaning. It would be similar to “I desperately need you.”

Empty Phrases

Empty phrases are words without meaning. Meaning can be information, emphasis, tone, etc.; but empty phrases add nothing. “There is” is often an empty phrase. Consider “There is a bear in my office.” We can safely delete “there is” without losing any meaning. (“A bear is in my office.”)

Unnecessary Information

Unnecessary information comes as too many details or tangents unrelated to the topic at hand. If you’re describing how to make an omelette, how to break an egg is too much information. The conditions on chicken farms are tangent to the point.

Wordy Writing

Wordy writing is the many phrases and grammar choices that have simpler options. It comes in a few forms:

  • Passive voice: “I kicked the ball” is active voice. “The ball was kicked by me” is passive voice.
  • Turning verbs into nouns: “The kicking of the ball happened.” makes the verb kick into a noun.
  • Phrases with simple meanings: “It is my opinion that.” could just be “I think.”

Heavy Words

Heavy words are the complicated cousins of plain speak. Encourage, acquire, and prior to are heavy. Urge, get, and before are light. They’re often shorter and Germanic.

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