This page is an essay on concise, uncluttered writing.
|This page in a nutshell: The Principle of least astonishment notwithstanding, strive to omit obvious details from articles.|
Principle of Some Astonishment
— Strunk, The Elements of Style (1918)
— Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars (tr. Lewis Galantière)
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Sometimes editors clutter their prose with pedestrian details that the reader likely already knows or would naturally assume. Rather than informing readers, this wastes their time and saps their attention. The following are examples of articles belaboring the routine and obvious, at times painfully:
- In the article Pick-up sticks:
Each piece in the game also has a point value, with more challenging pieces being worth more.
At the end of play, points are tallied up and the pieces can be thrown again or stored in a container for another use.
- Comment: Of course the points are tallied up at the end of play. Of course we can either play again or put the game away "in a container". (If the rules said to ignore the score sheet at the end, then called for players to burn the game pieces or use them to commit ritual suicide, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.)
- In the article Notre-Dame de Paris fire
Some lead joints in stained glass windows melted
in the heat of the fire.
- Comment: DUH.
- In the lead of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft:
Once inside, the pair
revealed their true intentions,tied up the guards, and spent over an hour stealing art from the museum's collection , which they loaded into their vehicle.
- Comment: The guards probably sensed their visitors' "true intentions" around the time they got tied up, and our readers will make the same inference vicariously. Furthermore, in this modern age most readers will envision art thieves as having a vehicle at the ready. (Had they absconded via public transport, or summoned an Uber, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.)
- In the article San Francisco Zoo tiger attacks:
They created a distraction which caused the tiger to turn towards the officers, who shot and killed it.
After the shooting,officials removed Tatiana's head, paws, tail and gastric contents for examination.
- Comment: Removing the tiger's head before shooting it, assuming you could somehow manage that, would no doubt have rendered the shooting superfluous.
- In the article US Airways Flight 1549:
- Comment: Of course it was recorded, otherwise how would we know it?
- Comment: The word quickly is superfluous, because our readers' innate cunning will inform them that controllers generally act with dispatch in such situations. (Had they instead been lackadaisical, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.)
- Comment: The part from "signalling his intention ..." on is probably unnecessary, because our readers aren't mentally defective. They will conclude without being told that when Sullenberger said "We can't do it ... We're gonna be in the Hudson", he's hinting that (a) he's going to land on the Hudson and (b) he's taking this unconventional step because more orthodox landing sites are out of reach. (Had he instead done it because he wanted a bath, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.)
- Comment: The immediately bit seems unnecessary. (Had the captain made a cup of tea before ordering "Evacuate!", THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.)
- Comment: If the fire chief, seeing people crowded onto the wings of a sinking airliner, had radioed, "False alarm – no big deal", THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.
- In the article University of Texas Tower Shooting:
He then drove to a hardware store, where he purchased a Universal M1 carbine, two additional ammunition magazines and eight boxes of ammunition, telling the cashier he planned to hunt wild hogs. At a gun shop he purchased four further carbine magazines, six additional boxes of ammunition, and a can of gun cleaning solvent. He then drove to Sears, where he purchased a Sears Model 60 12 gauge semi-automatic shotgun before returning home
with his purchases.
- Comment: If he'd bought all that stuff and then left it at the store, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.
- In the article Charles Whitman:
Whitman was reportedly the youngest person
in the worldever to become an Eagle Scout at that time.
- Comment: Are people becoming Eagle Scouts elsewhere than "in the world"? Perhaps on Mars?
- In the article Club of Rome:
The Club of Rome raised considerable public attention with its report Limits to Growth, which has sold 30 million copies in more than 30 translations, making it the best-selling environmental book in
- Comment: I think you see where I'm going with this.
- In some proposed text for the article Apollo 11:
On July 23, the last night before splashdown
on Earth, the three astronauts made a television broadcast
- Comment: Ditto.
- In the article Saving Private Ryan:
In Washington, D.C, General George Marshall is informed that three of the four Ryan brothers have been killed within the last week, and that their mother is about to be notified
of their deaths.
- Comment: Lest readers imagine they were notifying her that she'd won the Pillsbury Bake-Off.
- In the article Citrus juice:
- Comment: But then baby powder isn't extracted from babies, I suppose.
- In the article Stone's representation theorem for Boolean algebras:
The theorem was first proved by Marshall H. Stone (1936)
, and thus named in his honor.
- Comment: And here I thought it was proved by Marshall H. Stone but named for some other Stone.
- In the article Murder of Jo Cox:
|Murder of Jo Cox|
|Location||Market Street, Birstall, West Yorkshire, England|
|Date||16 June 2016|
He witnessed the assailant stab Cox,
who fell to the ground, before shooting her and stabbing her againshoot her, then stab her again. The attacker left the scene, butwas pursued by an eyewitness who followed him and telephoned police to describe his locationidentified him to police. Armed police officers attended the incident, and arrested a suspect.
- Comment: There's a lot to say about this one.
who fell to the ground: Persons stabbed and shot, then stabbed again, usually go down. (Extra points for the ambiguous suggestion that the witness shot and stabbed the victim.) left the scene: If the shooter/stabber had stuck around, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.
- was pursued by an eyewitness
who followed him: That's what pursuers do.
- telephoned police
to describe his location: Usually people calling for help give the location. Armed police officers attended the incident: Even in law-abiding, Queensberry-Rules, you-got-me-copper-fair-and-square England, readers will imagine that amongst officers dispatched to the shooting/stabbing of a Member of Parliament, at least some will be armed with more than their charming accents and unfailing courtesy. and arrested a suspect: That's what happens when an eyewitness points out the gunman. Had police let him off with just a stern talking-to, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.
- As for the infobox, unless told otherwise readers will assume that a shooting/stabbing will have involved a gun and a knife.
- In the article Death of Elisa Lam:
On the morning of February 19, an employee went to the roof, where four 1,000-gallon water tanks provided water pumped from the city's supply, to the guest rooms, a kitchen, and a coffee shop downstairs. In one of them, he found Lam's body, floating face up a foot below the water surface.
- Comment: [Left as an exercise for the reader]
New York City
- Multiple choice: In what article does the infobox at right appear?
- (A) New York State
- (B) New York County
- (C) New York CITY <== hint
- (D) New York University
- In the article Rodney Alcala
would remain unsolved until itwas connected to Alcala in 2011.
- Comment: Murders usually remain unsolved until they're solved.
- In the article Glenn Miller:
On December 15, 1944, Miller was to fly from the United Kingdom to Paris,
France,to make arrangements to move his band there.
- Comment: Oh, THAT Paris!
- In the article Ted Bundy:
He broke through the ceiling into the apartment of the chief jailer—
who was out for the evening with his wife—changed into street clothes from the jailer's closet, and walked out the front door to freedom.
- Comment: While it's nice to know a busy chief jailer still has time for his spouse, absent mention of a confrontation the reader's common sense will tell him that no one was home. (Had Mrs. Turnkey helped Bundy pick out a tie, or had Bundy walked out the door then gone back to the jail to turn himself in, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.)
- In the article Seth Black (serial killer):
At the request of Scottish detectives, the Metropolitan Police
conducted a search ofsearched Black's Stamford Hill lodgings to determine whether any incriminating evidence existed at Black's address.
- Comment: Yes, well, that's usually what they're trying to determine. (And click the link for a surprise.)
- In the article Eric Muenter:
Morgan lunged at his attacker and tackled Muenter to the ground as he fired two rounds into Morgan's groin and thigh. Morgan's butler finished subduing Muenter, beating him senseless with a lump of coal. Morgan quickly
summoned a doctor andrecovered, returning to work on August 14.
- Comment: If financier J.P. Morgan got shot in the groin and didn't summon a doctor, or summoned him other than "quickly", THAT would be worth mentioning in the article. (Kudos to the butler for his skill with the coal.)
- In the article Irish Boundary Commission:
The Irish Boundary Commission
was a commission whichmet in 1924–25 to decide on the precise delineation of the border between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland.
- Comment: So ... the commission was a commission?
- In the article Donald Trump:
tax cutlegislation which cut tax rates for individuals and businesses.
- Comment: A sax player who plays saxes, a fax machine that sends faxes, a tax cut that cuts taxes. (Just whose taxes is another question.)
- In the article Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry:
The Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry
is a society devoted to the history of alchemy and chemistry. The Societywas founded as the Society for the Study of Alchemy and Early Chemistry in 1935.
- Comment: Surprise!
- In the article Hardcore Henry:
After she replaces a missing arm and leg with
hi-techcybernetic prostheses, mercenaries led by the psychokinetic Akan raid the ship.
- Comment: Are there low-tech cybernetic prostheses?
- In the article Bunk bed:
The bunk or bunks above the lowest one may have rails to keep the user from rolling out
and falling to the floorwhile sleeping.
- Comment: For those innocent of the workings of gravity.
- In the article 1257 Samalas eruption
Very large volcanic eruptions can cause destruction close to the volcano ...
- Comment: For those innocent of the workings of volcanoes. (This is the least of what's wrong with this passage. Follow the link – if you dare!)
- In the article Truth or Consequences, New Mexico:
Hot Springs officially changed its name on March 31, 1950, and the program was broadcast from there the following evening
, April 1
- Comment: For those innocent of the workings of the calendar.
- In the article Battle of Tali-Ihantala:
On June 28, air activity was high on both sides as Finnish bombers and German Stukas pounded the Soviet formations.
The Soviet Air Force also attacked from the air and hit the staff of the Finnish Armored Division hard with bombers from the Soviet 276th Bomber Division.and the Soviet 276th Bomber Division hit the Finnish troops hard.
- Comment: These bombers attacked from the air, you say?
- On the dabpage Horváth
The surname "Horvat",
without the "h" still exists and is the most common surname in Croatia or the Croatian diaspora.
- Comment: No comment.
- In the article Chloe:
Chloe (also Chloë, Chloé) is a feminine name
- Comment: There really should be more feminine names for boys and masculine names for girls.
- In the article Henry Riggs Rathbone:
successfullygraduated from Phillips Academy in 1888, from Yale University in 1892, and from the Law Department at the University of Wisconsin in 1894.
- Comment: Graduations are usually successful (except of course a graduation from Yale, which by definition is the first in a lifelong string of degradations).
- In the article Stokes Croft:
Stokes Croft is
the name ofa road in Bristol, England.
- Comment: An earlier version read
Stokes Croft is what the name of a road in Bristol, England is called.
- In the article Distomo
The aluminum producing companyAluminium of Greece has its production facilities in the coastal village Agios Nikolaos.
- Comment: Ha! Obviously these people don't know the difference between aluminum and aluminium.
- In the article Caribou, Maine
- Comment: Is there a Carnegie library that Andrew Carnegie did not finance? Or was there some other heretofore unknown Carnegie financing American libraries with whom he might be confused?
- In the article Alice Herz-Sommer
She lived for 40 years in Israel, before migrating to London in 1986, where she resided until her death, and at the age of 110 was the world's oldest known Holocaust survivor until Yisrael Kristal was recognized as such. Kristal
was also a Holocaust survivor, andwas born two months before Herz-Sommer.
- Comment: For readers with short-term memory deficits.
- In the article Soyuz-FG
- Comment: Whatever that means.
- In the article Trinity Cathedral, Saint Petersburg
About four hours after the blaze broke out, one of the three remaining cupolas had been damaged but the fire was contained.
A department spokesman later confirmed that the fire had been extinguished.
- Comment: Lest the reader imagine it burns to this day.
- In the article M25 motorway
By 1993 the motorway,
which wasdesigned for a maximum of 88,000 vehicles per day, was carrying 200,000 vehicles per day.
- Comment: Now if they'd put the Tour de France on the M25 and you could see 200,000 bicycles, that would be worth watching.
- In the article Amazing Grace (2018 film)
Aretha Franklin as
- Comment: all participants in this documentary were marked as playing themselves. If they happened to be impersonating someone else that day, or if someone else had been impersonating them, that would be worth noting.
- In the article Adele Spitzeder
Officially founded shortly afterwards in 1869, the "Spitzedersche Privatbank"
(English: Spitzeder Private Bank)quickly grew from an insider tip to a large company.
- Thank you. I was completely at sea.
- In the article Assassination of John F. Kennedy
President Kennedy's blood-stained jacket, shirt and tie
worn during the assassinationare stored in the National Archives facility in College Park, Maryland.
- So not from that time he cut himself shaving.
The gun with which Ruby
shot andkilled Oswald, which came into the possession of Ruby's brother Earl, was sold in 1991 for $220,000.
- The reader will assume, unless told otherwise, that the gun was not used to bludgeon Oswald to death.
- In the article The Owl and the Pussycat
Portions of an unfinished sequel, "The Children of the Owl and the Pussycat" were published first posthumously, during 1938.
How the pair procreated is unspecified.
- Had that specification been made, children's literature might have taken quite a different direction.
|In the article
|In the article
|In the article |
|It's a common misconception that the
man with the gun is Mrs. Lincoln.
|You don't say!|
The word "unnecessary"Not a bad case
hardly does justice.
|Various views from:||In the article:|
|The reader will know without being told that
this is a "view".
|We're safe in assuming that the reader
will intuit that this "view" shows a "crowd".
|Thus not some other five-sided |
megastructure for some reason being
shown us in the article The Pentagon.
|Honoring:||In the article:||Meanwhile, back in Cambridge:|
|Who would have guessed?||Could have been worse – it could have said
"Picture representing an example of an EEG
|The lead (and only) image in:||The lead image for:||In the article:|
|Great example of an image
that doesn't need a caption.
|We can see it's labeled, we can see it's black-
and-white, we can see it's an image, and the
discerning reader will realize, given that this is
the article Icebox, that it's an icebox.
|Recently inducted into the Principle |
of Some Astonishment Hall of Fame –
caption and image both.
|In the article
(whatever that is):
|The lead image for
|The lead image for:|
|No shit, Sherlock. (Turns out this is the logo |
for all CNN brands, not just CNN International –
an example of the impulse to add the obvious
leading, instead, to addition of the inaccurate.)
|And here I thought they had a giant indoor
lawn, miniature building-within-a-building,
and artificial sky.
|Earth. Yes, Earth. Planet Earth. |
The lead image in the article Earth.
|In the article
|In the article
|In the article |
Harry Elkins Widener:
Edward Heath. (Apparently we're on
our own for Pat Nixon vs. the Queen.)
|In the article
|In the article |
|The one with the breasts and the hairdo
is Edward Heath.
|Bearing in mind that left and right are reversed south of the equator.|
Special section on modes of exit and ancillary details of death
- In the article Coniston Water:
killed instantly on impact whendecapitated by the K7's windscreen.
- Comment: For those innocent of the workings of windscreen decapitations.
- In the article Murder of Deborah Linsley:
She sustained eleven stab wounds to the face, neck and abdomen, of which at least five were to the area around the heart ... The coroner highlighted that, although passengers reported hearing "a commotion", nobody investigated.
A verdict of unlawful killing was returned.
- Comment: If the verdict had been suicide, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.
- In the article Lyndon B. Johnson:
At approximately 3:39 p.m. Central Time on January 22, 1973, Johnson suffered a massive heart attack in his bedroom. He managed to telephone the Secret Service agents on the ranch, who found him still holding the telephone receiver
in his hand.
- Comment: I'm trying to imagine the alternatives.
- In the article Grace Kelly:
Rainier, who did not remarry, was buried alongside her
following his deathin 2005.
- Comment: Had Prince Rainier of Monaco been buried alive, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.
- In the article Simon Meyer Kuper:
On the evening of 8 March 1963, Kuper, who was at home with his wife and daughter, was shot through a window by an unknown assailant. He died
of his injuriestwelve days later.
- Comment: If he was shot by an unknown assailant but died twelve days later on being surprised by a train, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.
- In the article James Sisnett:
Sisnett died in his sleep
of natural causeson 23 May 2013, at the age of 113 years, 90 days.
- Comment: Had the 113-year-old man died in his sleep not of natural causes, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.
- In the article Murder of Kristine Fitzhugh:
Music teacher Kristine Fitzhugh (1947
–2000) was murdered on May 5, 2000 in her home in Palo Alto, California.
- Comment: Obviously.
- In the article Karen Carpenter:
Paramedics found her heart beating once every 10 seconds. She was taken to nearby Downey Community Hospital
- Comment: Thanks for clarifying.
- In the article Gary M. Heidnik:
Heidnik was executed by lethal injection on July 6, 1999, at State Correctional Institution – Rockview in Centre County, Pennsylvania. His body was
- Comment: Gosh, I hope so.
- In the article Roy L. Dennis:
His body was donated to UCLA Medical Center
after he died.
- Comment: Ditto.
- In the article Miguel Serrano
He remained in contact with neo-Nazis elsewhere
in the worldand gave interviews to various foreign far-right publications prior to his death.
- Comment: Ditto.
- In the article Jean de Florette
The film starred three of France's most prominent actors – Gérard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil, who won a BAFTA award for his performance, and Yves Montand in one of his last roles
before his death.
- Comment: Let's see. Um... Ditto?
- In the article Wiley Post
Comment: Ditto. Or maybe they'd already died and Dr. Frankenstein reanimated them.
Principle of Complete Puzzlement
The opposite of the Principle of Some Astonishment is the Principle of Complete Puzzlement: some details don't belong because, though neither obvious nor even predictable, they're completely irrelevant and will puzzle the reader as to the reason for their inclusion.
- In the article Chuck Schumer:
In March 2009, Schumer announced his support for same-sex marriage, noting that it "was time". Schumer previously supported civil unions. At a private
risottodinner with gay leaders ...
- Comment: Evidently we're to conclude that gay risotto is especially persuasive.
- In the article Trayvon Martin:
On the evening of February 26, Martin was walking back alone to the fiancée's house
after purchasing a bag of Skittles and an Arizona iced tea atfrom a nearby convenience store.
- Comment: Somewhat awkward product placements. As The Washington Post put it, "Skittles can't seem to escape political controversies."
- In the article 2015 Thalys train attack:
The remaining passengers were taken to
a gym inArras, where they were searched and identified before being allowed to proceed to Paris.
- Comment: Good to know they could get in some cardio while waiting.
- In the article on courageous flight attendant Barbara Jane Harrison:
- Comment: Even in death a girl should always look her best, I guess. (Personal note: give the article a read; she was truly a hero.)
- In the article Lightning strike:
Sixty-eight dairy cows
, all full of milk,died on a farm at Fernbrook on the Waterfall Way near Dorrigo, New South Wales, after being involved in a lightning incident.
- Comment: Perhaps they used all that boiled milk to make cocoa.
- In the article James F. Blake
- Comment: A bad day all around then.
- In the article Myra (painting)
- Comment: Only the best eggs may be thrown at the Royal Academy.
Michael Kinsley's "Department of Amplification: William Shawn and the temple of facts" (The New Republic, 1984 – and well worth a read in full) is a pitch-perfect sendup of The New Yorker as "a weekly monument to the proposition that journalism consists of the endless accretion of tiny details":
The June 18 New Yorker has an article about corn. It's the first in what appears to be a series, no less, discussing the major grains. What about corn? Who knows? Only The New Yorker would have the lofty disdain for its readers to expect them to plow through 22,000 words about corn (warning: only an estimate; the TNR fact checkers are still counting) without giving them the slightest hint why. Here is how it starts (after a short introductory poem):
When the New England farmer and botanist Edward Sturtevant retired, in 1887, as head of the New York Agricultural Experiment Station, in Geneva, he left behind a bulky manuscript that was published in 1919, twenty-one years after his death, as "Sturtevant's Notes on Edible Plants." Dr. Sturtevant, who was also a graduate of the Harvard Medical School, but never practiced medicine, had scoured the world’s botanical literature for mentions of all the plants that human beings were known to have eaten (he did not count tree bark, which in times of famine was often one of them), and had come up with among more than three hundred thousand known plant species, two thousand eight hundred and ninety-seven edibles. (Latter-day scientists believe he may have missed as many more.) But, of all these, only a hundred and fifty or so have ever been widely enough consumed to figure in commerce, and of those a mere handful have been of any real consequence.
Now, there are some facts for you. No doubt every single one of them has been checked. You stand in awe as they tumble toward you, magnificently irrelevant, surrounded by mighty commas, mere numbers swollen into giant phrases ("two thousand eight hundred and ninety-seven"), all finally crashing over you with the bravura announcement that nothing you have just read is "of any real consequence." How true this is! From the end of the paragraph, you gaze back on the receding vistas of inconsequence, as far as the eye can see. Even supposing we would like a bit more information about corn, and even supposing we might be relieved to know how many other plants, edible and otherwise, are not going to be discussed in this article, why are we being told about a man whose count apparently was off by half? Even supposing we need to know about Dr. Sturtevant’s book, when it was published, and when the good doctor died, why do we need to know when he retired? Even—stretching it—supposing that we need to know that this gentleman "was also a graduate of the Harvard Medical School," why, oh why, do we have to learn that he "never practiced medicine"? As for the business about tree bark, that has just got to be conscious self-parody.
Remind you of any Wikipedia articles?
- McGregor, Jena (September 22, 2016). "Skittles can't seem to escape political controversies". The Washington Post. Retrieved September 22, 2016.