Thursday, May 03, 2012

Writers, assemble! against the nefarious threat of EMPTY WORDS

The useless and the pretentious: disposable words

What’s the greatest threat to clear communication today?

It’s not using “lay” instead of “lie” (“Lay your shield here, Captain America, next to Mjolnir, mine enchanted hammer, as we lie down for a moment’s respite” is correct).

“Just between you and me, Natasha,
not everything on the Hulk grows
proportionally” is correct.
And it’s not writing “between you and I.”

The biggest problem: empty words. When we throw empty words at a communications challenge, it’s like Iron Man with dead Evereadies, or Hawkeye shooting duds.

Villains love to use lots of empty words to disguise their true intent. So read on, True Believers (nod to Mr. Lee) with some examples and strategies to foil supervillains and their superfluous sophistry.


Empty words

There are two categories of disposable words: those that add no meaning, and those that pretend to have meaning, but blur meaning more than clarify it.

Some words do nothing but take up space and time. High school students use them to pad out their assignments to the required length. Corporate writers and other grown-ups use them to aggrandize their writing.

They're trying to disguise meagre thinking with empty words. Try taking them out. If there is no less information in the document, you don't need those words.

Here are some of the most common:

In light of this — see what happens when you delete this phrase.
“In light of this incoming flaming ball of wreckage, we need to get out of here!”

In the month of — Correct me if I’m wrong, but “September” is not anything but a month. And writing “during August” will not make anyone wonder if you mean Mariska Hargitay’s son.

Similarly, "in the State of Ohio" – what is Ohio other than a state? And trust me, you don't have to tell readers that Nova Scotia is a province. They'll know. And don’t you dare write “twelve in number.”

“Note that I am wearing the latest
Stark Industries Iron Bra.”
 Note that / It is to be noted that — just get to the information.

In a nutshell — If you're trying to summarize, why extend the length of your document?

At the end of the day — Not only does this phrase do nothing but add to the word count, Ricky Gervais says it. Do you want to sound like Ricky Gervais?

The information that you requested is below — Your readers will figure that out.

Undertaking to do the following — How about just “undertaking” or better yet, “doing X.” Drop the “following” bit and tell us what you’re doing. Or, you’re not really doing anything? You’re not hiding it well.

Phrases from the Trickster God

Worse are the phrases that pretend to add meaning, but actually make communications less clear. These are harder to fix, because you can't just drop them. To make the message clearer, you have to add specific information.

Some examples:

"On the ground, there sure is a lot of debris."
On the ground — This supposedly means "in action," or where things matter. It sounds significant because it brings to mind the idea of soldiers fighting a battle, and what the writer is writing about will be something concrete that will help them. But the words are still vague. What ground? Where? If you mean you will bring more ammunition for the soldiers, say that.

As such – a linking phrase, but it’s often misused.

Consider this example: “A stable IT system depends on the ability of its users to make informed decisions, particularly when adding functionality. As such, we are proposing the following changes."

"As such" is a linking phrase, but it doesn't belong here. "Therefore" is the right word. Don't use phrases just because you once heard a smart person use it. You're smart; use your own words.

Issue – Do you mean “problem,” “challenge” or “edition”? “I have issues with that option.” In other words, something makes you uncomfortable, right? How uncomfortable? And is it a problem for just you, or for me, too?

S.H.I.E.L.D.'s flying platform always provides
a high-level perspective for those high-level
High-level – "High-level objectives" or "a high-level perspective" is just a fancy way of saying you're going to be vague. On the other hand, if you assign high-level objectives to me, just about anything I do will be satisfactory.

Areas of priorities – Another example of telegraphing to the reader that you’re going to be vague. You won’t list the priorities, just which general region they’re in. Remember, anytime you write about "area," you're being vague.

Keep it simple, right?

Do more than that. Think deeper. Make certain your message is clear in your own mind, that there is no vagueness. If your message can be interpreted in two ways, half of your readers will get it wrong. And whose fault will that be?

Loki’s. Right.


  1. If you removed all the above phrases from English forms they would be blank. (Mind you,) that would be a lot better.

  2. I'm all for simplicity. In the corporate world, I constantly had to fight for getting to the point in communication while the mucky-mucks were busy trying to fluff things up. Interesting post, Scott. Thanks.

  3. I find in my first draft I do these too much, but usually take them out when editing. It seems like it is how we think,b ut doesn't sound good in writing.

  4. The phrase "undertaking to do the following" makes me cringe!

    1. Honest to Odin, I did NOT make that up - I found it in an actual corporate document.

  5. Anonymous7:28 PM

    In the State of Ohio may have meaning. You could be in the Ohio river.....