Don’t use these words

Free advice here, everyone.

You should always remember never to say always and never. If you say something is always this or always that, or never this or never that there will always be an exception. It never fails.

I have some other words you should not use when you write.

I love to read about writing. In fact I’m writing a book about writing that should be on the shelves early next year.

One of my favorite authors who writes about writing (much more successfully than I, at this stage of my career I might add) is William Brohaugh. He wrote a book called Write Tight. (Here is the copyright stuff: Write Tight, by William Brohaugh, Sourcebooks, Inc., Naperville, Ill. © 2007.) There.

He has compiled a list of words he calls empty modifiers. He calls them empty because they don’t add any necessary information to the word or phrase they modify. They are empty. The sentence can get along without them. So can the word(s) they modify.

When I first read his list I cringed at the number of times I could recall using more than a few of them more than once. All of them are pitifully common and I hated to give them up. Some had become good friends.

However, as I reviewed Brohough’s list I could see how he could call them empty. So, I have vowed not to use them any more. It is difficult. I have to resort to the Crtl+F command and scour my writing to eliminate them. But I’m getting better about not using them as often when I write.

Maybe you can see, from reading Brohaugh’s list, how useless these words are as modifiers. They are common and overused, but unnecessary. See if you agree.

Here’s the list: very, extremely, really, generally, usually, basically, awfully, actually, literally, kind of, rather, pretty much, quite, certainly, essentially, ultimately, inevitably, virtually, more or less, for the most part, as a rule, somewhat, by and large and by large measure.

You use them too, don’t you. Go on, admit it. The toughest ones for me to go cold turkey on were very, usually, actually, literally and quite.

Think about it though. Why would you have to say “very chilly” or “literally terrified” or “quite difficult”? Are there degrees of chilliness? Can someone be figuratively terrified? Calculus is either difficult or it’s not.

Using modifiers such as these empty ones is like saying a woman is “almost pregnant” or a painting is “quite unique.” A woman is either pregnant or she is not. An painting is either unique or it is not( or a sculpture or a poem or a dress). The modifier “almost” doesn’t add a thing to “pregnant,” and “quite” doesn’t help us understand the degree to which something is “difficult.”

Why does a good descriptive word such as terrified need a modifier at all? Won’t readers get a pretty vivid image of a person who is described as terrified without adding a qualifier or a degree of terror?

Good luck writing better emails and letters and Facebook posts and blogs by eliminating useless empty words from Mr. Brohaugh’s list. Eliminating empty modifiers will improve your writing drammatically. Really.

One thought on “Don’t use these words

  1. Or as I tend to put it: All categorical statements are false. (With the same deliberate paradox as “You should always remember never to say always and never.”.)

    As for the details, I partially disagree: These words are often used unnecessarily or unconsciously, as fillers or “dead meat”, but they also often fill a role as a modifier of meaning. There are degrees of chilliness and difficulty. Even theoretically “boolean” words (e.g. “certain”) may need modification (“I am quite certain”, “I am reasonably certain”). Words like e.g. “ultimately” can give an outright change in meaning (“We will ultimately win.” has a subtly, but potentially importantly, different meaning from “We will win.”). Some of these words can be used to qualify a statement (“I am more-or-less done.”) to remove a high risk of misinterpretation or an unfair generalization.

    Other reasons for their use can exist too, e.g. a wish for a rhetorical push, a need to vary the text, or simply an attempt achieve a certain stylistical effect.

    In the end, the question is not what words we use, but why we use them: Is it carelessness, incompetence, whatnot—or is it a deliberate choice.

    (This should not be taken to mean that my own uses are always deliberate: I know well that I have a tendency to be wordy and redundant.)

    As an aside: “Literally” is mainly problematic for a different reason, namely that it is typically used in a manner that it is incompatible with its actual meaning: The quarter-back was literally on fire.


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