Tighten up – overused or misused words and phrases

Hannah Rooke

The Right Lines

Let’s focus on some bad habits and lazy or boring phrases we all use, and I’ll share some tips to avoid them. We all have our pet hates, my goodness I have my own. However, it’s only when you become aware of your faults that you can learn how to fix them.

We’re all guilty of overusing ‘really’ and ‘very’, and it’s frequently overlooked. But using them demands more attention, and once you realise how varied and common the mistakes are, they’ll stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.

To quote Mark Twain, ‘Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.’

Vague or fillers

Twain’s rule also applies to ‘really’, ‘quite’, ‘lots’, ‘somewhat’, and other adverbs which are used to modify. Beware, because they can be vague, exaggerate, understate or confuse. And sometimes they emphasise the absence of information.

  • How high is ‘very tall’?
  • What were the results if you achieved ‘really good’ results?

Substantiate or qualify statements to make your sentence less vague or general:

  • the building is the tallest in the city
  • the building is 223m tall
  • The results were our best yet.
  • The latest results showed a 56% improvement

Absolutely fabulous?

There are no degrees of uniqueness. Unique is an absolute. Adjectives or adverbs with absolutes are redundant as, technically, they can’t be modified.

You can’t be very exhausted, really honest, really starving, very pregnant, the most unique or, absolutely fabulous. Wrong is wrong. However, we’re all a little wrong as we’re all guilty of doing it (see what I did there).

Lazy writing

Some modifiers have merit, but avoid using the same ones because it appears lazy. For the best writing, take the time to consider the best word for the job.

Here are some commonly overused modifiers to look out for:

  • very
  • really
  • extremely
  • slightly
  • just
  • least
  • most
  • fairly
  • somewhat
  • a little
  • a lot
  • kind of
  • sort of
  • pretty

What, really?!

Although ‘really’ and very are common examples, there are plenty of others. Our brains are fine-tuned to nuances within language – written and spoken – and it’s in our nature to become wary, hesitant or skeptical of people who rely on weasel words.

This is evident in the world of marketing (and dare I say politics). The pushy salesperson, the over-inflated claims, the (not-so) subtle dodging of answers or facts.

Using ‘really’, ‘very’ or other emphasis throws suspicion on the validity of the statement:

  • what I really mean… I’m trying to cover a lie
  • it’s really not that difficult… I’m softening the blow
  • I’m really very good… I’m a terror
  • I believed implicitly that this was a work event…

Fact or fiction?

“Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.” To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

The use of adjectives, another type of modifier, depends on what you’re writing. In factual reporting, business reports and journalism you need to stick to the facts, so, remove hyperbole or opinion and get down to the nitty-gritty.

Novels require more descriptive and emotive language. Compare the sentences below to see where fact, fiction and opinion begin and end:

  • the man walked through the park on his route to work
  • the quiet man walked suspiciously through the dimly-lit park before finally going to work
  • this machine is battery-powered
  • this really impressive machine is simply powered by batteries

My copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage summarises the above more eloquently than I can:

“Adjectives should be good friends of the noun. In fact, […] they have become its enemies. They’re often used not to ‘describe the thing more fully and definitely’ but rather to give it some vague and needless intensification or limitation. As if their users thought that the noun by itself was not impressive enough or too stark, or perhaps even that it was a pity to be content with one word where they might have two.

The operation needs considerable skill and should be performed with proper care.

Effective means of stopping the spread of infection are under active consideration and there is no cause for undue alarm.

[…] It is clear (the adjectives) are otiose and undue is absurd; their only effect is to undermine the authority of the noun they are attached to.”

To conclude, here are my top tips

  • Remove fillers, they don’t add anything to your writing except word count.
  • Substantiate your claims.
  • Delete repetition.
  • Choose your words wisely.
  • Always get someone else to check your work.

Originally published on

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