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Telegraphic style and when you should use it

You may  have never  seen a telegraph or received a telegram, but this now-antiquated communication technology was once the only way to send a message over distance quickly. In Greek, “tele” means “at a distance,” and “graph” means “to write.” This system is over 150 years old, and Western Union was well-known for transmitting Morse code (dots and dashes) that were then translated into words at the other end. Orville Wright used a telegram to document the world’s first four successful flights on December 17, 1903.

Wright wrote “Success four flights thursday [sic] morning all against twenty one mile wind.” His telegraphic style was brief because Western Union charged by the word. Wright omitted  articles (a twenty one mile wind); prepositions (on thursday); and even the subject and verb (we had success).

The telegraphic style in general omits articles, pronouns, conjunctions, transitions, and other sentence structures. Such a clipped writing style would bring out your boss’s red pen, right? Well, maybe not. You’re probably using  telegraphic style more than you think, especially if you write the following:

  • PowerPoint slides
  • Headings and subheadings
  • Headlines
  • Captions
  • Table headings
  • Procedures
  • Instructions
  • Instant messages
  • Tweets
  • Text messages
  • Notes to family

Here are some examples of telegraphic style:

  • Headings and subheadings: Biology Behind In Vitro Tests for Genetic Toxicology
  • Headlines: 10 US Baptists charged with child kidnap
  • Captions: Nature of contact with body
  • Table headings: Simplified diagram: Human body defense systems
  • Procedures: Lift lever…
  • Instructions: Push bell twice to notify clerk of arrival
  • Notes to family (dinner 8:30 Tom’s)

If you decide to use the telegraphic style, always test your writing on your target audience to make sure that your omissions don’t compromise your message. Clarity always trumps conciseness.

To learn more, visit these links:

History of the telegraph

Good example of telegraphic style used for procedures

A contrarian view that claims that telegraphic omissions create potential ambiguity


  1. Iñaki Abalia Camino says:

    Good explanation! For me, it’s better to write the phrase “complete” next to the examples “telegraphic”, in order to understand properly.


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