Overused Words

If you haven’t seen this already, Lake Supe­rior State Uni­ver­sity in Michi­gan has released its “Words to be Ban­ished from the Queen’s Eng­lish for Mis­use, Overuse and Gen­eral Use­less­ness” for the 38th year in a row.
This year’s hit list:
Fis­cal cliff
Kick the can down the road
Dou­ble down
Job creators/creation
YOLO (You only live once)
Spoiler alert
Bucket list
Bone­less wings
(For expanded descrip­tions and the rea­sons for the choices, click here.)

We all have words and phrases we like to use, often to the point of overuse. Maybe we’re not even aware we’re using them. When we’re writ­ing, they seem to sneak into our man­u­scripts via our fin­gers, and some­times it’s as if the brain isn’t involved at all.

Lit­tle words, like “just” and “really” and “well” are com­monly listed among words that don’t add any­thing to the man­u­script other than giv­ing our brains time to catch up with what we’re try­ing to write. They’re the equiv­a­lent of the “um” in speak­ing. No mat­ter how many times I tell myself to avoid overus­ing “just”, when I do my search dur­ing edits, I’ll find they’re pop­ping up all over the place.

Big “fancy” words are in another cat­e­gory. Miasma? Efful­gent? Par­si­mony? They’re going to jump out at a reader, and should be used spar­ingly, per­haps only once or twice in an entire man­u­script. And, of course, the caveat that any “fancy” words are appro­pri­ate to the char­ac­ter, the genre, and the time­frame of the book. If you’re read­ing a Regency romance, the lan­guage is going to be totally dif­fer­ent from a contemporary.

I catch a lot of repeats and ‘bor­ing’ words when I print out my daily out­put and read it on the page instead of the screen. Even when I go back and improve word choices, when it comes time for my final run-through for crutch words, they’re still there. Nor­mally, I will check for con­text. Is it dia­logue? Does it enhance the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion? Then, I look to see how long it’s been since the last time I used the word. (There’s that “you’re on page XXX” thing at the bot­tom of Word) If it’s a com­mon word, my goal is at least 10 pages between uses. “Medium” words, maybe 30–50 pages. And those big fancy ones? If they’re truly the char­ac­ter speak­ing, and not autho­r­ial intru­sion, once is enough.

What words do you overuse? What words bug you when you’re read­ing? And, what would you add to this year’s “banned” list?

17 thoughts on “Overused Words

  1. Hey, Terry,
    There’s noth­ing wrong with “Kick the Can” — it was one of the BEST of games for us as kids grow­ing up in post-war Liv­er­pool when we had noth­ing and still man­aged to amuse our­selves!! LOL

    Agree with you about overused words becom­ing mean­ing­less — top of MY “bon­fire of the Van­i­ties” list would be either “like .… ” thrown in with­out rea­son or need [E.g. “She was, like, com­ing down the road, like …”] or the irri­tat­ing ques­tion “You know?” in the mid­dle of a sen­tence: I often feel like scream­ing “No, I DON’T know: not until you tell me!” — and espe­cially when a (usu­ally very minor) ‘celeb’ of some sort is pon­tif­i­cat­ing about some­thing in a TV inter­view.
    First against the wall when the rev­o­lu­tion comes, as Dou­glas Adams might have said…

    • When I was in my teens, my dad would inter­rupt me every time I said “you know?” and say “No, I don’t.” That broke me of that habit, and I don’t use that phrase in my writ­ing (unless I’m writ­ing a val­ley girl, but I’ve never done that). Dia­logue can be ‘for­giv­ing’ but only if it’s true to the character.

  2. Good post, Terry. When I fin­ish a mss I read through it for overuse of cer­tain words, awk­ward phras­ing, and the like, but it’s get­ting harder and harder to decide of an unusual word should be changed. The vocab­u­lary of the gen­eral read­ing pub­lic is changing.

    • Susan, so true. I know my vocab­u­lary doesn’t come close to under­stand­ing Regency dialogue–I rely on the author to make sure things are in con­text. I write contemporary–and then there the other ‘wrin­kle’ of using phrases that are cur­rently in fash­ion but will be out of date and not under­stood a few years down the road.

  3. Ter­rific post, Terry. or is ter­rific over used. Kick the can could be brutal-my cousin split his lip when the can flipped back at him. I believe in let­ting the words flow best as you can and going in the next day to fix. But, well, you know, just do you’re best. Kid­ding here. Thanks.

    • Know­ing you need to take another look, and know­ing what to look for will make your edits stronger.

  4. Terry, I agree with you about read­ing aloud. You catch so many things you just skim over when you read. And I watch for places I stum­ble, know­ing the reader will do just the same. I mean, if it’s con­fus­ing to me, how con­fus­ing would it be to some­one read­ing cold?
    I overuse awe­some in blog posts and com­ments. Con­grats, too. But heck, (there’s another one) I think other writ­ers know what we’re say­ing.
    I’ve used Wor­dle to illus­trate the most used words in my ms. Hard to face when you see the word THE big­ger than the hero’s name, for instance. My daugh­ter, who is a teacher, likes to use it in class to illus­trate her stu­dents writ­ing: http://www.wordle.net/
    Great post.

    • Thanks, Sharon — Wor­dle is fun, although “the” is a word we can’t exactly do with­out. I’ll bet “he” would show up more than my hero’s name, though. (I think there’s a set­ting in Wor­dle to have it ignore things like “the” — but maybe that’s aut­ocrit, another great tool for show­ing you which words you rely on too heavily.)

    • I dis­cov­ered, even bet­ter than read­ing aloud myself, have the story read aloud by some­one who’s never seen it before and doesn’t do a good cold read. With­out the auto­matic emo­tions we read into our work, rep­e­ti­tions and awk­ward phras­ing jump out and slap us silly.

      • And who doesn’t love being slapped silly! I don’t know if I have any friends loyal enough to read an entire man­u­script aloud (or if I could stand listening!)

        But yes, great advice.

  5. I saw the news arti­cle about this year’s overused words and my first thought was to blog about it, but you beat me to it! :) I have two words I overuse ad nau­seum (I think that’s spelled wrong). THAT and ACTUALLY. With THAT, I read the sen­tence out loud, first time with the offend­ing THAT in and the sec­ond time with it out. If the sen­tence makes sense with­out the THAT, I remove it. And still, I can’t stop myself from overus­ing it.

    • Ah, the evil “that.” Yes, I do the same thing. If you don’t need “that” leave it out. (And on another note, be care­ful you’re not using it to refer to a person–they get “who”).

      Our fin­gers type with­out engag­ing our brains a lot more than we’d like to think. At least that’s my the­ory, and I’m stick­ing to it.

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