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Why Do We Pile on Words?

I was flying across the country a few days ago, and I paid attention to the recorded safety instructions: “Federal law prohibits tampering with, disabling, or destroying lavatory smoke detectors.”

Tampering with, disabling, or destroying. Do we need all three? Isn’t disabling a form of tampering? Isn’t destroying a whole lot of tampering?

What would we lose if we said, “Federal law prohibits tampering with lavatory smoke detectors”?


Well, nothing if all our passengers speak English.

If we use all three expressions, we increase the odds that a person who does not understand English well will understand one of the words. “Tampering with” is not a phrase I would easily recognize in other languages. But I would recognize “disabling” and “destroying” in at least two others.

So I am going to guess that the triple-word buildup in the airline safety example is used to increase understanding.

But sometimes business writers pile up words for no reason. The other day I read a web page that referred to getting “help, support, and assistance.” Those three words mean the same thing. Choose one!

Sometimes people who take my business writing courses let me know in class prework that they want to “write more concisely, not use so many words.” Happily, by the end of the class, they know how to say it once instead of twice.

In business writing, less is more. The less you write, the more likely it is that your audience will read your message.

What do you think about “tampering with, disabling, or destroying” and other word pileups? Please share your view.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

12 comments on “Why Do We Pile on Words?”

  • Lynn – I don’t know for sure but I would guess that if we crawled back through the original FAA rule/regulations from the time they began forbidding smoking on planes (early 80s?) we would find that phrase somewhere. Pretty much everything about airline operation – especially when it comes to health/safety – is prescribed by the FAA and there is no incentive for the airlines to innovate or simplify the wording. In fact, there may be a strong disincentive to do so because it might create confusion and in the case of an accident/incident the airline could be punished for not sticking to the prescribed wording. It may be kindof like a person’s Miranda rights. You can communicate those rights in many different ways but, because the original wording from back in the 50s is used so much and so well known people just continue to say them the old fashioned way. We’re stubborn creatures… Thanks for the post!

  • Sadly, because we have become such a litigious society, it seems every statement comes with built-in disclaimers. They’re written to cover all the bases.

    McClain could be right, but who knows, maybe the original statement used just the word “destroy.” Then someone decided you could do things to a smoke detector that didn’t destroy it. Okay, let’s add “disable.” Wait, you can beat it up without disabling or destroying it. We don’t want to say beat up. Someone will take that to mean something else. Let’s use “tampering.”

    Now we have it – “tampering, disabling or destroying.” Perfect.

    Can we find an editor, please. 🙂

  • This wording is, as McLain suggests, legally mandated. I found it online as part of FAA regulations: “Sec. 121.317 — Passenger information requirements, smoking prohibitions, and additional seat belt requirements.”

  • I liked that you looked at the multiple words from a different perspective.

    I’ve noticed that editors, business writers, linguists etc often come down very hard on public announcements and statements.

    It’s almost as if they relish the chance to destroy anything with the slightest redundancy or tautology.

    So it’s good to see people considering both the foreign-language angle and the legal angle. As entire court cases can be decided on the meaning of a single word (just have a look at some libel trials), this is one of the unusual types of situation where redundancy is okay in formal writing.

  • Thanks for jumping right in, McClain, Cathy, and Janice.

    McClain and Janice, thanks for mentioning the Federal Aviation Administration. I neglected to mention the FAA, but the consistency of the message across airlines is due to the FAA mandate, of course. Janice, thank you for supplying the documentation.

    Cathy, I love your story of the evolution of the three-pronged phrase. I bet that’s the way it often happens.


  • Hi, Jacob. I am sorry I missed your comment yesterday. We must have been writing at the same time, but you were faster!

    I appreciate your thoughtful comment about people relishing the opportunity to attack certain kinds of writing. It is a helpful reminder of the value of restraint.

    Thanks for mentioning the legal implications of this kind of statement. Although sometimes people complain, “The lawyers obviously wrote this!” there are times when writing does need to meet legal requirements.


  • Lynn,

    Your final paragraph hit the nail on the head. There are so many words because the lawyers wrote it. And lawyers get paid by the word. lol (Not literally, of course, but you all know what I mean.) Just found your site today; have to bookmark it, thanks!

  • Lynn,

    You talk about a notice pointing out what the law forbids, and take issue with the wording. But, there is good reason for this wording. We start with the law, which has to be drafted so that clever lawyers can’t argue around the wording. You want to prohibit by both result (disablement or destruction, which are not the same thing) and by act (tampering, whether or not it results in disablement or destruction).

    You then want to put the public on notice, accurately, what is not allowed.

    If you use different words to that of the law, you risk an argument that the words you used meant something different(of course they did, otherwise you would have used the same words), and that you were thus being misleading as to what was allowed. Then, someone uses this argument to avoid punishment, on the basis that they were misinformed as to the law.

    On the other hand, much law suffers from its heritage: here we see “to have and to hold”, “goods and chattels”, “part and parcel”, and similar duplications, the component parts of which come from legal French and legal Anglo-Saxon. Here, the draughtsman used both the Saxon-derived and French-derived terms in the wording to make sure that no-one was in any doubt about what was intended, when the law came to be interpreted, so that both legal traditions could be relied upon.

    In contrast, your egregious example of “help, support, and assistance” on a business website, I suspect, is motivated by nothing other than a desire to make sure that keyword-searching the site with any of these terms will direct the user at the same point on the page, regardless.

    I do take the point on the virtue of brevity, though; to misquote Pascal: had I had more time, I would have written a shorter post.

  • Hello, Charles. Thank you for your eloquent argument. I appreciate your thoughts about writing for legal purposes.

    I had not thought about the redundant wording “help, support, and assistance” as a search engine optimization (SEO) attempt. I had thought it was simply bad writing. But I believe you are probably correct.

    Thank you for the effort you put into your comment. Its length paid off for us readers.


  • There are occasions when repetition is needed for clarity and enhanced understanding; however, in most writing, such as company blogs, it just ends up sounding wordy. Clear, concise writing sounds much better.

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