DR. ENGLISH: Worthless Words

Remember the old days when you had to submit a paper that contained at least 1,500 words, so you did everything you possibly could to add words when your count came up short? All the words you added were worthless, of course, except to the extent that they got you to where you had to be numbers wise. And that’s when you decided that a technical career was the career for you, only to learn (too late now!) that geoprofessionals probably write more than almost all other professionals. The good news: You graduated. The bad news: You’re still likely to be using worthless words that sap energy from your writing, tarnish your image as a professional, or, worse, create a significant liability exposure.

All: This is one of the most dangerous words of all. It means “no exceptions whatsoever, no matter how tiny.” Still, so many people use it all the time. For a technical professional, it’s not just a bad habit, it’s outright dangerous. Bottom line: Get into the habit of not using it at all. (Removing “of all” at the end of the first sentence of this paragraph and “at all” from the end of the fifth have no impact on meaning; they simply reduce the word count, making the writing less off-putting, and lower the risk. In the third sentence, removing “all the time” does the same thing the other two deletions would do, and more: It eliminates an outright lie created by use of a colloquialism. “All the time,” colloquially, means “frequently,” not continuously, ceaselessly, endlessly, and so on. But professionals are supposed to be able to express their thoughts clearly and reliably. What to do? Just delete “all the time.” It results in fewer words and enhanced accuracy. (Use other colloquialisms cautiously, too: Replace “for a duration of 48 hours” with “for 48 hours“; use “100 yards” instead of “a distance of 100 yards“; try “now” as a substitute for “at this point in time.”)

Currently: Replacing a suspected-worthless word with its opposite is an easy way to tell if the word is really worthless (with “really” as just used being itself worthless (and “itself” as just used also being worthless)). As examples, even though they’re spoken far more often than they’re written, “Our lines are currently busy.” or “I’m currently away from my desk.” Given that “Our lines were really busy yesterday.” or “I’m going to be away from my desk sometime next week.” make no sense, “currently” should be eliminated.

(Note that the tense of the verb – the present in both examples – itself conveys “currently.”)

Apply the same test to “past experience,” “different examples,” “existing debt,” “successfully delivered,” “intended objectives,” “diametrically opposed,” “disorganized mess,” “received correspondence,” “end result,” and the “personally” of “Personally, I believe that….”

Subjective modifiers – like “hot” – are worse than worthless, because what the writer conceives as hot is most likely not what a reader – let alone all readers – regard as hot; e.g., the temperature hit 80F and the writer wrote, “It’s a hot day today.” The reader, from Tucson, Arizona, reads “hot day” and imagines it to be 110F wherever the writer was at the time of writing. “Very” – as in “very hot” doesn’t help, given that “very” is worthless, as is the “particularly” of “particularly hot.” “Several” falls into that category: Just how many are several? Even worse, and responsible for at least one claim we know of, “a number of.”

Some modifiers are worthless when they are used to add something to an absolute word; e.g., the “more” of “more perfect,””more ideal,” or “more unique.” “Perfect” and “ideal” are the top rungs of the ladder. If someone considers something “more perfect” or “more ideal,” whatever it is that the something is being compared to is less than perfect or ideal. (That’s why “fullest” is illogical and, as such, worthless.) “Unique” means one of a kind. Because something cannot be “more one of a kind” than something else, “more unusual” or “odder” – among other words and phrases – can be used to convey the intent.

You don’t need to use “as follows” to introduce a list; readers can see a list follows the colon you should use. Likewise, “Finally“is often unnecessary when writing the last paragraph, because readers can see it’s the last paragraph. (When finishing an oral address, people can assume that “finally” happened when you’re done talking.)