Omit Needless Words

Omit Needless Words

Watching my youngest son draft and redraft his high school essays under the watchful eye of his English teacher, who is smitten by the inerrant wisdom of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, I was curious how the best legal scholarship in the country fares by classic rules of writing.

To simplify my task, I have chosen one rule that is easily quantifiable. In discussing elementary principles of composition, Strunk and White admonish writers to omit needless words:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts…. Many expressions in common use violate this principle…. In especial the expression “the fact that” should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.

So how do the top law journals perform under the microscope of William Strunk and E.B. White? In the countless hours of drafting and editing, do the top scholars and top student editors adhere to this elementary principle of composition?

The results are not encouraging. (Alas, I too plead guilty in my own scholarship). A ten-year search of the number of occurrences “the fact that” appeared in the flagship journals of the top law schools reveals the following:

Harvard Law Review: 869
Michigan Law Review: 496
Yale Law Journal: 459
Columbia Law Review: 436
Chicago Law Review: 431
NYU Law Review: 428
Penn Law Review: 408
California Law Review: 406
Stanford Law Review: 388
Virginia Law Review: 364

So on average the top journals misuse this phrase almost fifty times a year, and the Harvard Law Review misuses it over eighty times a year.

In our obsession with rankings, we can take solace in “the fact that” the Harvard Law Review is the best among the best at using this needless expression.

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Thaks for pointing out the fact that this has occurred in so many reviews!.

doug heidenreich

Response…This is nothing compared to “this point in time” that litters the speech and writing of so many of us or the misuse of “as such” that is scattered throughout many legal documents and judicial opinions. 

Jack Townsend

It would be better for some type of weighting — such as weighted to the number of pages and words over the populations searched.  For example, I suspect that the Harvard Law Review may have more pages and words than most of the others, so that the ranking as presented is not a fair fight.
Also, I suppose, some type of weighted to reflect the law school’s ranking among law schools might show something.

Itzchak Kornfeld

Roger, an excellent use of empirical methods.  I am uncertain which way Jack Townsend would like the weighting to go.  But, given that the Harvard Law Review is the greatest culprit in the not exicing of the term “the fact that”, it appears to me that the Virginia Law Review editors are either better versed in Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, or they have or have had editors who don’t accept articles with that term in the submission.
Also, given that extraneous or needless words seem to appear in the Harv. L. Rev. more often than in the other top law reviews, maybe a new ranking system needs to be put in place.


At this point in time, the fact that there has been misuse as such is interesting.


I’ve always liked George Orwell’s suggested rules (from Politics and the English Language):
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

F Proctor
F Proctor

My own pet peeve, not from journals but from legal documents is, “in the case that”. I have never understood why “if” does not adequately express the idea.