In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself—a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock.

Source: Steven Pinker: Sense of Style, pp. 1–2.

Can you please explain to me what the bold passage from the above excerpt means. I am not really able to find the meaningful interpretation of that. The literal reading does not make any sense to me.


White compares his teacher, Prof. Strunk, to the "radio prophets" of his youth, influential Christian ministers who preached to very large audiences over the radio, implying that Strunk's style was like that of the "hot gospellers": enthusiastic (in the old sense of 'god-filled') and evangelical, a summons to literary salvation. In particular, Strunk followed his commandment to "Omit necessary words" so devotedly that he would have "outdistanced the clock"—talked faster than the clock, and therefore finished his 'sermon' before the allotted time ran out, leaving the remaining time with nothing to fill it ("dead air", the cardinal sin of broadcasting).

Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, "Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!"

  • Thank you for your explanation. Just a question regarding "the position of having shortchanged himself". Is "shortchange" used with the meaning "to deprive someone of something for which they paid". Is in my sentence "deprivation" related in a ironic way to the "words" intead of "money"? – bart-leby Feb 21 '16 at 21:28
  • 1
    To short change oneself, is to not receive as much as one is due (supposed to get). By finishing before the time was used up, White ( the White of Strunk & White) short changed himself since he still could have said more. As @StoneyB points out, on radio, one is given a set allocation of time and most speakers usually run out of time before they can conclude. The opposite happened with White. Many a radio commentator would envy having more time and from the speaker's viewpoint White should have said more, but he didn't, therefore depriving himself by using less time. – Peter Feb 21 '16 at 23:01

The statements about the teacher are supposed to break down like this:

He often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself(.)

By leaving words out of his speech that didn't actually need to be left out, his sentences weren't as pleasing as they could have been. (Kind of like it's not as pleasing to get less change back than you were actually owed.) See the dictionary on shortchange.

(He was) a man left with nothing more to say(,) yet with time to fill(.)

There was no real reason to leave out the words. The sentences suffered for it, and there was no rush. So why not leave them in?

(He was) a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock.

StoneyB covers the meaning of this, and why the comparison between language use and religion would be made.

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