My high school English teacher called them “deadwood.” I’ve heard them called “inflation words,” “filler,” “fluff,” “clutter” and “couch potato words.” You probably have another pet name for them.
They’re the words you almost never need in a sentence. They occupy space, trip tongues and take readers down a long, winding path when a short, straight one would do.
Many exist, but a few grind my gears, because they show up in everything I edit. Once you commit this list to memory, they’ll jump off the page, and you won’t believe you ever deigned to include them before.
5 words you (almost) never need in a sentence
Writers use “different” often to indicate variety, but I rarely encounter a “different” I can’t cut from a sentence without changing the sentence’s meaning.
- We have many different types of soup. → We have many types of soup.
- Each waiter serves a different segment of the restaurant. → Each waiter serves a segment of the restaurant.
- You have several different options for dinner. → You have options for dinner.
The words “types,” “segment” and “options” each imply difference, so the word is unnecessary. And the sentences are sharper without the redundancy. Notice the cut “several” in the third example, too. It’s just another way to say “different,” so that original sentence is drowning in fat.
I built this into my self-editing routine years ago after getting the tip from The Write Life’s Alexis Grant: Nix “that.”
It rolls off the tongue when you speak, but it clutters your written sentences. Plus, it’s easy to cut: Literally CTRL+F your document for “that,” and cut it anywhere you can without convoluting your sentence.
- Can you believe that she doesn’t want to come with us? → Can you believe she doesn’t want to come with us?
- I know that you don’t want this. → I know you don’t want this.
- She decided that she’d go after all. → She decided she’d go after all.
It feels necessary, I know. You feel like you have to say “I currently work at Acme Co.” But you don’t. “I work at Acme Co.” means the same thing.
In rare cases, “currently” may help clarify what is now versus another time. But most of the time, a simple present-tense verb will do the trick.
- She’s currently dating Taylor, but she was married to Jamie before. → She’s dating Taylor, but she was married to Jamie before.
- I’m currently between jobs. → I’m between jobs.
- Currently, you have two options for student loans. → You have two options for student loans.
4. Certain, specific or particular
Confoundingly, these words are vague, which makes them useless to most sentences. I can’t tell whether writers use them in an attempt to narrow the definition of a noun or for emphasis. Either way, they don’t work.
Cutting these will strengthen a sentence, but replacing them with a more precise modifier will do even better.
- A specific location → a location → a location to be named by your instructor
- A certain amount → an amount→ a large amount
- Your particular problems → your problems → your unusual problems
5. Very, really, totally — any emphasizing adverb
Instead of adding a boring adverb to emphasize the greatness of an adjective or verb — e.g. “really big” or “greatly appreciate” — use a stronger adjective or verb on its own.
Instances of these adverbs abound, but here are a few examples and alternatives, from simple to I-obviously-own-a-thesaurus.
- Very big → Huge, gigantic, enormous, prodigious
- Really want → desire, crave, covet, yearn for
- Extremely tall → giant, towering, soaring, altitudinous
- Highly likely → probable, feasible, expected, anticipated
- Totally surprised → astonished, dumbfounded, flabbergasted, nonplused
- Greatly appreciated → applauded, relished, treasured, extolled
- Truly believe → affirm, conclude, suppose, ratiocinate
Get monthly tips from your editor
For tips like this every month, plus more resources for pitching, submitting and writing, subscribe to “Notes.”