Extra Words


This week’s blog entry has to do with words that sometimes we just don’t need. I’m not talking about words that create redundancies, as in “PIN number” or “past history”; that’s a blog entry for another time. I’m talking about “filler” words. These words aren’t meaningless, but they’re not necessary either. Often, the writer’s meaning is completely clear without them. Take a look at the following pairs of sentences and tell me if you think the second one in any pair (the boldface one) is worse off for the omission. You may not even notice the difference at first. We’ll start with the most common extra word out there.

  • The only thing you need to do is to trust yourself. The only thing you need to do is trust yourself.

After writing this I thought, There must be a logical, grammatical basis for why that second “to” is unnecessary. I made myself dizzy trying to figure it out. I dissected the sentence, looking at subject and predicate, and considering similar but slightly different sentences, but I couldn’t come up with a rule that worked. I suppose Words into Type says it best in its comprehensive guide to grammar: simply, “The to of an infinitive is often not expressed” (p. 381). So there was no good reason for Shakespeare to write “To sleep, perchance to dream” except for the nice parallelism and to fit his iambic pentameter.

  • He seemed to be unsure. He seemed unsure.

That’s right: you can safely leave out “to be” when what follows is an adjective. In other cases, though, the sense of the sentence might be affected. Consider when “to be” is followed by a participle:

  • He seemed to be taking his own sweet time.

And in other cases, as when “to be” is followed by a noun phrase, to leave it out might sound too “literary”:

  • He seemed to be the chosen one.

A wizard or a poet might say “He seemed the chosen one,” but not most people.

Thanks to my friend and colleague Jenna Browning for the next example.

  • On the one hand, she liked him; on the other hand, she wasn’t sure about his motives. On one hand, she liked him; on the other hand, she wasn’t sure about his motives.

Don’t we normally choose between “one or the other”? We never talk about a choice between “the one or the other.” We also don’t say “the one hand” at any other time; we talk about “the left hand” and “the right hand.” For example: “On the left hand, he had a tattoo of a tiger; on the right hand, a dragon.”

  • The force that is at work here is gravity. The force at work here is gravity.

This relates to an entire category of phrases that are sometimes unnecessary: any combination of “that” or “who” and any form of “to be” (that is, that are, that was, that were, who is, who are, who was, who were). “You’re the one who’s going to the birthday party, so I think you should pay for the present, not me.” Other times, of course, you’ll want to keep it in: “The man who was the seventeenth caller won the prize.”

  • All of the participants received a gift card. All the participants received a gift card.

If I think of or come across any other good examples of unnecessary words, I’ll add them in the comments. Feel free to respond with your own examples!

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