Where There’s a Will

“Bald eagles will form lifelong pair bonds, and return to the same breeding location year after year.”

Question: Is there an extra word in this sentence?

Since you already know I’m trying to make a point, probably you answered, “Yes.” What is it? I suppose the post’s title gave it away: The word is “will.”

People who write about wildlife sometimes use “will” without noticing they’ve fallen into a bad habit. It’s bad, because it is the reflexive use of a word that is unnecessary. Writers are duty-bound to notice such habits and slay them. Tight writing is energetic writing. As editor William Zinsser wrote, “There is no sentence that’s too short in the eyes of God.”

So why do we fall into using this extra word “will” when we’re not trying to indicate an action in the future? I think we’re seeing a shade of meaning we want to show the reader: For any given behavior typically observed in an animal, certain animals under certain conditions won’t exhibit that behavior. Animals tend to behave in such-and-such way, but they don’t always.

To the writer’s eye, “Bald eagles will form lifelong pair bonds” looks the same as “Bald eagles tend to form lifelong pair bonds” or “Bald eagles usually form lifelong pair bonds.”

We may see this shade of meaning, but I doubt readers wear the same glasses. When you run across “will” in this context, consider how the sentence would sound without it. “Bald eagles form lifelong pair bonds” sounds fine, doesn’t it? Nobody’s going to hold them to it 100% of the time based on this statement. Deleting “will” doesn’t affect the sentence’s meaning.

When the wandering “will” is pointed out to a writer, its shade of meaning fades. Most writers take a closer look and agree it’s not real: They’ve been seeing a ghost. And as we know, ghosts will fade when the sun rises. Or “will” they?


6 thoughts on “Where There’s a Will

Add yours

  1. You are a clever, clever girl. And a really, really good writer. Thanks for pointing out some of the extra, extra words I can live without.

  2. “Bald eagles will form lifelong pair bonds. . . ” makes me think an explanation needs to follow, like:
    1.) most of the time
    2.) except in hot climates
    3.) every other generation
    Like you, I prefer the statement, and “will” forgive those eagles who are an exception to the rule.
    Cute ending.

    1. Good point! If there is an important exception, it should be stated, and perhaps in some cases “will” would alert the reader that an exception to the rule is about to be explained. Yet I still think in this example, the word can be omitted without harming the reader’s experience. “Bald eagles form lifelong pair bonds, except in populations where there are many more adult females than males” is a fine sentence without the extra word.

  3. I just had this discussion with a guy on the street today. I told him his sign would be more concise if it just read “Work for Food.” He seemed very appreciative.

    But seriously, nice post. I love concise sentences.

    This is a cool website!

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