Words to eliminate

“15 words you should eliminate from your vocabulary to sound smarter”, by Jennie Haskamp for The Muse on Mashable, 5/3/15 (hat tip to Paul Armstrong). The list is a mixed bag, though many are criticized for being vague or overused.

A classic “not a word” case: #15 irregardless.

A classic peever target: #10 intensive literally. See my 2/25/11 post on the topic.

Omit Needless Words run amok: #1 that. We are advised to eliminate the word wherever possible. This means mostly the relativizer and complementizer that, despite their utility in clarifying the syntax of subordinate clauses.

An outdated word, or so Haskamp claims: #6 really as modifier. Well, that’s her subjective impression.

A verb that is not specific enough: #2 went. We are advised to be more specific: drove, skated, walked, etc. More specific verbs are indeed more vivid — but they also draw the reader’s attention to the verb, focusing on details that you might not want highlighted.

A website on “some tired and overused words” (providing homework tips) doesn’t list went or go among its 19 words in this category, but it does list the verb look and said. Again, specificity can provide vividness, but depending on the context, can merely be a distraction.

The sentence adverb honestly: (#3) this one just sounds tin-eared. Haskamp says:

The problem is, the minute you tell your reader this particular statement is honest, you’ve implied the rest of your words were not.

Well, no; you’re just highlighting your honesty. This absurd criticism would apply to a great many sentence adverbs (like frankly).

The adverb maybe: (#12) this is taxed because it “communicates uncertainty”, as if you should only write things that you are absolutely sure of. Communicating uncertainly is often exactly what you want.

Always (#8) and never (#9): Haskamp maintains that absolutes are (always) bad, because they’re too strong. But here she misunderstands the way absolutes (these, every + V, all + V, no +V, etc.) are actually used in speech and writing, as allowing for for a useful penumbra of vagueness in interpretation. Considerable literature in semantics and pragmatics here.

Stuff (#13) and things (#14): said to be too generic; but some object to stuff as being too informal.. In any case, a generic noun is often exactly what you want. Using material or considerations or the like scarcely tightens things up.

The adverb just: (#11): in the sense ‘merely, only’ this is said to weaken sentences unacceptably. It is indeed a kind of hedge, but hedges have their uses.

Absolutely: (#4), said to be redundant. Well, in things like

I’m absolutely sure that we will fail.

absolutely serves as an emphasizer, reinforcing the the assertion of sureness and reducing the penumbra of vagueness around it. It is not pragmatically equivalent to

I’m sure that we will fail.

Overused words. On Haskamp’s list, the one example of a word that is said to be foo frequent is amazing (#7), which is also so labeled in the “overused and tired” site, which lists a number of others (interesting, happy, good, bad, nice). Now, it would be hard to imagine a writing style in which all words (even all adjectives) were equally frequent. When there’s a problem, it’s probably that some writers sometimes fail to make choices from the less frequent and more vivid portion of the spectrum. But I don’t see that picking on a few words as to be avoided is a useful strategy in dealing with the problem.

The emperor of vagueness: very (#5), also on the “overused and tired” list and complained about by a great many writers on usage, who would have you be more specific about size or extent, beyond saying that some referent is towards the high end of a scale. But that’s genuinely useful, so it’s no surprise that the word is very high in frequency in the Brown corpus of American English: #111. Other high-end degree modifiers (like extremely) push the referent much higher on the scale. Getting rid of very would be a bad move indeed.

One Response to “Words to eliminate”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Mike Pope on Facebook:

    There seems to be an inextinguishable desire to dispense silver-bullet writing advice. “These simple steps will make your writing great.” Pullum once had this to say, which I think sums up the whole problem:
    “Look, you don’t get good at writing by deleting adjectives. Writing is difficult and demanding; you can learn to get moderately good at it through decades of practice writing millions of words and critiquing what you’ve written or having others critique it.”

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