Omitting needless words, however, does not mean cutting out every single word that is redundant in context. As we shall see, many omissible words earn their keep by preventing the reader from making a wrong turn as she navigates her way through the sentence.

I would like to ask question regarding the usage of idiom "earn their keep" in the above clause. "Earn one's keep" means "earn enough to pay for the basic necessities". From the context I derived that the author wants to say that sometimes it is useful and meaningful writing omissible words. Is the usage of this idiom in this context when we do not talk about people standard?

  • I think it's interesting that OP says it's interesting that the author uses "she" instead of "he". Gender neutrality in the minds of readers still has a ways to go before it catches up with how it manifests in the words of writers. Feb 24, 2016 at 16:19
  • It may not be all that widespread, but practice is hardly new. I can remember the first time a teacher told a classroom full of my peers to consider using a feminine pronoun every now and then, instead of always reverting to a masculine one. That was more than 30 years ago.
    – J.R.
    Feb 24, 2016 at 17:02

2 Answers 2


To earn one's keep means to perform some labor in return for room and board. Used figuratively, it means to do something to justify one's presence.

Here, omissible words are being personified as traffic cops for the lady driver ;-)

  • Thanks your for explanation. But I do not understand your comparison traffic cops to the lady driver. What do you mean by it?
    – bart-leby
    Feb 24, 2016 at 15:11
  • "...preventing the reader from making a wrong turn as she navigates her way through the sentence"
    – TimR
    Feb 24, 2016 at 15:15

"to justify one's presence"

To "earn their keep" in your example, the presence of the words can be justified. Even though some are redundant, they have enough reason to be included. Those reasons (to help guide the reader may be one reason) are what "earns the keep". In other words, the reasons the words are included are what justify them being in the writing.

Often, phrases aren't used in their literal sense but rather given a slightly different meaning or used in a different context.

Regarding the he/she note, I didn't even notice. It's not a "pro-feminine" thing at all. Some people use "she" as default, some use "he". I know other languages (such as Spanish, which I am currently learning) always go by the masculine default when no gender is specified (even a group of kids is referred to as ellos, the male form, even if there are girls in the group) but not English. I doubt most people would even notice if the default was masculine or feminine.

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