Sometimes less is less

Posted: Nov 21, 2006 12:01 AM

Robert Browning said it first, but the architect Mies van der Rohe made it famous: "Less is more." It's a fine rule for writers -- let us use only necessary words -- but "less is more" is not a rule to be followed blindly. Often an extra syllable or a supposedly redundant word will perk up our pearly prose. Consider:

A couple of years ago (I've lost the date) The New York Times Magazine carried an article on coal mining. It began: "Twenty-five miles south of Charleston, W.Va., the Appalachians look as they must have a thousand years ago, rapturously folded against each other ..." It was a good lead, but let us tinker.

Suppose we insert a single word. Now the lead sentence begins, "Twenty-five miles south of Charleston, W.Va., the Appalachians look as they must have looked a thousand years ago."

We have added six letters and a spaceband to the piece. Have we committed a Regrettable Redundancy? A Sloppy Surplusage? Not on your life. Granted, the repetitive "looked" was an unnecessary word, but not all "unnecessary" words are stylistically evil. We read not only with our eyes but also with our ears, and in this instance our inner ears respond pleasantly to the added word. The mountains look as they must have looked. Move on!

Back in May the Times' Sunday book supplement carried an omnibus review of four books about Hurricane Katrina. The reviewer waded through 14,000 pages. Then he concluded: "Like miles of hurricane wreckage on a storm-swept coast, much of it is fascinating and much just junk." Clunk! The device of alliteration is a useful device, but in this instance, "much just junk" didn't work. It did not tumble trippingly from the tongue.

How could the sentence be improved? Suppose that after "storm-swept coast" we cut one word and add three. Thus we summarize the book: "... much of it is fascinating, and much of it is junk." All right! The sentence begins to go giddyup. (The sentence could have been further improved by finding a three-syllable adjective to replace the four-syllable "fascinating," but nothing but "laudable" came to mind, and it had minimal zing.)

We're talking cadence today. It is not a concern of poets only. True, it is not much of a concern for the author of the day's Dow Jones report, but it should be an abiding concern for the writer who writes in some degree for the ear. Sunday-morning sermons come to mind -- and children's stories, and political speeches, and editorial exhortations to the laggard voter.

In an editorial in Time magazine two years ago, the writer voiced revulsion at the way in which the horrors of Abu Ghraib have been defended: "When we are reduced to insisting that our depravity isn't as bad as the other guy's, we have fallen deep into a pit of moral equivalence." Suggestion: Let us sharpen the edge of that sentence by repeating a single word, e.g., "that our depravity isn't as bad as the other guy's depravity." Sarcasm is such a lovely tool!

Good writers are good fiddlers. Let us play our metrical measures one more time! Two years ago the Times carried a piece about the secrecy that surrounds the CIA. Only a few members of Congress get even a tiny insight into what the agency is doing, and their briefings are treated "like chummy conversations at a well-heeled men's club." The phrase starts with some pretty iambs -- like-CHUM-my CON-ver-SAT-ions AT a WELL-heeled -- but then the cadence collapses. It could have been improved by a single stroke, e.g., "at a club for well-heeled men."

Very well. Substance will always be more important than style. It's finally the fish that matters, not the parsley on the plate.