Phrases are groups of related words that
don’t include a subject and verb; for example, to the store, at
a fast pace, our favorite teacher, an enclosure attached, fearing
reprisal, and dedicated to learning. At the end of this article, I
include the URL of a site that explains the different types of
phrases and their formation.
Of special importance to authors who are trying to
improve their craft are the two editing aspects addressed here: (1)
eliminating wordiness in phrases, and (2) proper positioning of a
phrase in a sentence.
We’ve become used to hearing and speaking
wordy phrases. As authors, however, we need to make ourselves aware
of this wordiness and fight to edit it out of our writing. Just as
the guiding words in real estate are location, location, location,
in writing they are revision, revision, revision. And editing goes
hand-in-hand with revision.
When you’re ready to edit your writing, choose a
portion—whether it be a scene or a chapter or several of each—and
highlight every phrase. Now go back through and examine each one. Is
the phrase absolutely necessary to the sense of the sentence? Can
you remove or combine some of the words and still keep that sense?
Can revision do a stronger job by turning the phrase into one or two
adjectives? Is it redundant? Is it cliché?
Let me illustrate. Questionable phrases are
- Bill stepped up to the tee and drove the
ball all the way down the fairway and onto the
The three phrases make this sentence too wordy. A
more concise sentence would be:
Bill drove his tee shot all the
way to the green. (I left in "all the way" for emphasis.
These decisions must be made case by
Or: Bill’s incredible tee shot landed on the
We’ve tightened 20 words to 8 by cutting
unnecessary phrases and rewording the sentence.
- Despite the fact that Betty hated
shopping, Shirley dragged her along.
This is one of a large group of phrases, all
containing "the fact that," or similar wording, which should
nearly always be deleted. Revision can take several versions:
Although Betty hated shopping, Shirley dragged her
Despite Betty’s hatred of shopping, Shirley dragged her
Betty hated shopping, but Shirley dragged her along.
We’ve tightened 11 words to 8 by deleting the
unnecessary "the fact that."
- Judy was intent on following her prey.
Without conscious thought, she elbowed past the man
blocking her way.
The second phrase has two problems. "Without
conscious thought" has become a cliché, and it’s not necessary
to the sense of the sentence. The author produces a stronger
choice by combining sentences:
Intent on following her prey,
Judy elbowed past the man blocking her way.
Now take a look at "Intent on following her
prey." Assuming the author previously informed the reader that
Judy is following someone—her prey—"following" could be deleted as
redundant. A better rendering of the sentence, therefore, would
Intent on her prey, Judy elbowed past the man blocking her
We’ve tightened 18 words to 12, deleted a
redundancy, and avoided a cliché. And we’ve left the editor
without any complaints—always a notable
Proper positioning of a phrase in a
Too often, misplacement of a phrase can befuddle or
even misdirect a reader. The examples that follow will illustrate
the importance of careful crafting of sentences by the
Notice how poorly structured these sentences are.
The relevant noun is underlined; the phrase is
- Swimming in the bright sunlight, my
eyes burned and watered.
This is the classic dangling participle
(swimming). The sentence says "my eyes" were swimming. Revise for
Swimming in the bright sunlight made my eyes burn and
- Joe walked to the store with a
Joe pulled a wagon to the
- She put the dog in the car that was
She put the
barking dog in the car.
- The house had yellow shutters on the
corner of Elm Street.
The house on the corner of Elm Street
had yellow shutters.
- Though only three, Mary’s
father took her to the circus.
At a glance, this might look all right. But
"father" is the noun to which the phrase applies, so the sentence
says he is only three. Rewrite:
Though Mary was only three, her
father took her to the circus.
Also keep in mind the reverse possibility of
improving sentences by USING phrases rather than wordy clauses.
The proper use of phrases is a vast area that is
barely touched on here, but the serious writer will pursue the
subject on her own. A book with extensive examples is The
Dictionary of Concise Writing – 10,000 Alternatives to Wordy
Phrases by Robert Hartwell Fiske. This really
is written in dictionary style, and while I'll never get
through it all, it's great to skim occasionally, or to look up
pesky phrases for better wording.
A shorter book is Edit Yourself, A Manual for
Everyone Who Works With Words, by Bruce Ross-Larson. It has a
64-page section on "What Editors Cut, Change, and Compare" that
shows numerous phrase patterns and redundant word combinations to
avoid, and is a good starter book.