Do you ever hear a word or a phrase so often that it begins to make you cringe? Sometimes it is a phrase that sounded so original the first time it was said that it quickly becomes overused to the point that instead of sounding original, it turns into a cliché. “Thinking outside the box” is one such phrase. It sounded so creative when it was first used in the early 1970s, that it quickly moved from a phrase that meant innovative, to a phrase that is now so hackneyed, it means almost the opposite. So here is a list of a few words and phrases that set my teeth on edge, and a few suggestions for better ways to write them.
If you have suggestions or comments, please send them to me.
- Actually: This one really bothers me. It is often a verbal tic, a word that is used to fill in when we don’t know what to say. Usually, just lose this word.
- Absolutely Essential: If it is essential, it is necessary. We don’t need “absolutely” to make it more essential.
- Actual Fact: Well, I’m not so sure about this one anymore. In the era of “alternative facts” maybe we need to strike this from the list and continue to use it.
- Basically: Another meaningless word. Let’s just get rid of it.
- Eliminate Completely: If you are eliminating something, you are getting rid of it completely. So let’s eliminate “completely” from this phrase.
- Combine Together/Join Together: Again, if you have combined or joined two things you have put them together. Just remove “together” from the phrase.
- Literally: See actually, above. This one is often used to emphasize that something is true. But it is either true, or it is false. Using “literally” does not make something truer.
- Suddenly/Unexpectedly: Especially when used in mystery or suspense, I notice writers often use them as a shortcut, instead of building suspense through description, they just but in “unexpectedly.” Remember, “don’t tell me, show me.”
- Remember: Yes, I did that on purpose. I started a sentence with “remember” right before telling you not to do it. This one is one of my own writing tics that an editor made me aware of several years ago. It’s so easy to use, but again, it meaningless. If you are telling your reader something important, it is obvious you want them to remember it.
- 110 Percent: If you give all of yourself you give 100 percent. You really can’t give that extra ten.
The best way to stop using these and other meaningless words or cliches is to always reread your work. Think about what you are saying. Is it clear to the reader? Have you over-explained or under-explained? Look up the meaning of the word or phrase you are using or check the thesaurus. Often, there is an easier, less hackneyed way to say something.