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It's the 'little' words that can cause big problems

In "The Elements of Style," the late, great E.B. White laid down a few "suggestions and cautionary hints" for writers. This was his SuggestionNo. 8:

"Avoid the use of qualifiers. Rather, very, little, pretty -- these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words."

This was what White rightly deplored:

*From The New York Times 18 months ago: "Last week, 'Today' somewhat quietly marked the achievement of an improbable feat."

*From the same piece in the Times: "One reason the feat was initially observed somewhat modestly was a bit of uncertainty . . . "

*From a column in USA TODAY by Craig Wilson about the vulgarities voiced by public figures: "To be honest, I found these incidents rather refreshing."

*From a background statement filed in a U.S. District Court in Nebraska: "By using rather germane accounting tricks to inflate the company's income, defendant Rohde could . . . "

Were the "somewhats" and "rathers" necessary? Not at all. E.B. White would have mocked them.

Let me digress: Many months have passed since I last quoted White's sage advice. It seems unlikely that anyone who loves the writing art would have missed what he called his "little book," but for the record: Drawn partly from his own experience and partly from the teachings of his old professor at Cornell, "The Elements of Style" is the finest guide ever devised toward the writing of English prose.

Do we feel an impulse to use a "rather," a "little," a "very" or a "pretty"? White would tell us: Lie down until the impulse goes away.

Such itsy-bitsy words give writers more trouble than many of the big words.

Some months ago Paul McClain, of Somewhere in Cyberspace, wrote to inquire about the use of "since" in the sense of "because," and "while" in the sense of "although." Let us pray:

*From an editorial in The New York Times: "While it is still the largest animal area project started by business in Africa, there are other successful ones . . . "

8From Anna Quindlen in Newsweek: "The poor child now discovers the bullying can go on endlessly through the miracle of the chat room, since it's much easier to wound . . . "

*From Byron Calame in the Times: "While Mr. Kirkpatrick was shifted to the team of Times reporters covering Capitol Hill . . . "

*From a Times editorial: "Since we live in an era when the chasm between the lower and upper classes is growing . . . "

The trouble here is that "since" and "while" are salamander words. They change their function right before out eyes.

Let us tinker: "The Lubombo initiative is still the largest . . . but there are other successful ones."

And after "chat room," "because it's much easier to wound without the sight . . . "

And, "Although Mr. Kirkpatrick was shifted to the team . . . his reporting has made good use . . . "

And, "Because we live in an era . . . "

Mind you, I'm not sore at "since" and "while." In their temporal place, they're adorable.

As for "as," in the linguistic family of Chamaeleontidae, it's the most versatile sister. At the turn of a phrase, "as" shifts from adverb to conjunction, thence to pronoun or preposition.

It's also the weakest sister. There may be sentences in which an "as" would be an improvement on the anemic "since," a temporizing "while" or an honest "because," but they do not come readily to mind.

The thought for today is: Look closely at the "little" words. In prose style, they rank with the big ones.

Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to James J. Kilpatrick in care of this newspaper. His e-mail address is

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