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RHETORICAL SCHEME #57: Perissologia

Strictly speaking, perissologia (from the Greek περισσολογία) is not a tool of expression or persuasion; it is the fault of excessive wordiness, of prolixity, garrulousness, verbosity, of superfluity or redundancy in speech or writing, of belaboring a point or beating a dead horse. It’s also a fault of indirection, of circumlocution, evasiveness, of beating around the bush or skirting the issue.

Whew! That’s actually exhausting, but there will be a point to creating that paragraph, we promise.

While wordiness is common in a lot of writing, it’s not always a fault.

First, it’s a standard technique in writing to get as much as possible out onto the page at the start and then edit by selective deletion. At least that’s how we do it; create a mass of verbiage and then cut, cut, cut and then cut some more until all that’s left is the barest skeleton of text that’s needed to express the point effectively.

Wake us when he runs out of adjectives.

Second, repetition is a powerful way to emphasize a point. Great writing and speeches abound in redundancies and over-editing would only reduce their rhetorical power. A little goes long way; the trick is to find that “Goldilocks” zone of just enough words to both inform and inspire the listener.

Was the prophet Isaiah being verbose with the following?

 “…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Both their “swords” and their “spears”? Would that really be necessary?

Was Winston Churchill with this?

“Never give in, never give in, never; never; never; never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”

How about the credo of the US Postal Service?

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

While it would be possible to edit these familiar statements down to the bare minimum, they would then not be as well known as they are.

The Post Office’s motto would be reduced to:

“Our couriers complete their rounds as swiftly as possible regardless of weather or time of day.”

(It doesn’t say anything about actually delivering the mail.)

Winston Churchill would have said:

“Never give in on anything other than convictions of honor and good sense.”

Where’d he go? Churchill was right here a minute ago, we swear!

The Bible passage would read:

“…and they shall convert their weapons into farm implements and there won’t be any more wars.”

Concise, but totally devoid of conviction.

On the other hand, sometimes redundancy is a virtue, as in the case of legal writing in which every possible circumstance and interpretation must be addressed. For example, consider the legally imposed superfluity in the copyright warnings we encounter regularly:

“This content may not be copied, scanned, duplicated, reproduced, replicated, posted, broadcast, transmitted, distributed or downloaded, in whole or in part, in any form, for any purpose.”

Do you think they’re covering all the bases with that? Any wriggle room left at all?

Whatever the legal implications, they certainly sound like they mean business. But, if we edited it down to the bare minimum, we’d be left with:

“Don’t copy or distribute this.”

While this might not actually be leaving any doors open to infringement, it certainly is neither as memorable nor as scary.

But what about our first paragraph? How about editing that down to cure it of its bad case of perissologia?

We can trim much of the excess verbiage and yet retain the essential meaning and that’s a good thing to do:

From this:

“Strictly speaking, perissologia (from the Greek περισσολογία) is not a tool of expression or persuasion; it is the fault of excessive wordiness, of prolixity, garrulousness, verbosity, of superfluity or redundancy in speech or writing, of belaboring a point or beating a dead horse. It’s also a fault of indirection, of circumlocution, evasiveness, of beating around the bush or skirting the issue.”

We get this:

“Strictly speaking, perissologia is not a tool of expression or persuasion; it is the fault of wordiness in speech or writing. It’s also a fault of indirection.”

The second paragraph is only 27 words long while the first is 61. That’s 34 words fewer, almost 55%. Yet all the meaning has been retained, and no one even had time to fall asleep.

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One comment on “RHETORICAL SCHEME #57: Perissologia

  1. I’ve read stories where people ‘modernize’ Hamlet’s soliloquy to make it more accessible to today’s reader, stripping out every metaphor and piece of poetry that makes it the most quotable and recognizable text in the world.

    “Shouldn’t we all just kill ourselves? Life really sucks, so yes, but death is scary, and being the cowards that we are, we don’t.”

    It’s not the words, it’s the music.

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