Dead Words

I just read an article with some advice for writers about avoiding “dead words” – words empty of meaning including very, funa lotsaid, nice, cool, and really.

As so often happens when someone pontificates about writing, the article features a mixture of good advice and absolute nonsense. Here’s a response I posted after I read the article:

“Said” is hardly a dead word. “Said” is the only word journalists use to introduce direct quotations. You’ll rarely see “replied,” “commented,” “noted,” or similar words in a newspaper article. Do readers object to the repeated use of “said” – sometimes a hundred or more times – when they read a newspaper? Few of them even notice. (I never did until someone told me about the practice.)

I could also have pointed out that alot is a common misspelling, not a “dead word.” And I use fun all the time. (The author probably meant that we should avoid using fun as an adjective – “We had a fun time at the party” – but I would call that a colloquialism, not a dead word.)

On the other hand, I agree with the advice about avoiding very, really, and nice. (“Cool” I would classify as another colloquialism.) Etiquette columnist Miss Manners recommends substituting charming whenever you’re tempted to use the word nice, and I think that’s an excellent suggestion (although I’ve never tried it).

I would have added rather and respective to the list of dead words. Every time my husband uses rather in one of his gardening columns, I wage a fierce battle to convince him to take it out. I’m happy to say that I usually get my way. Using respective in a sentence is grounds for divorce in our home.

There’s another, less obvious angle to consider when you start thinking about dead words: Even splendid words (like splendid!) lose their punch when you overuse them. If you come up with a powerful word that you’re dying (ha!) to use, limit it to one appearance in your writing task.

And you should think seriously about whether you want to use it at all. No one would call splendid a dead word. But wouldn’t you be better off writing about the specific qualities that evoked your admiration? 

Dead Words

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2 thoughts on “Dead Words

  1. AvatarJenna

    Jean, really liked this post and you had some pertinent comments that I thought were quite spot on. (Wasn’t it Mark Twain who once wrote something about taking out every “very” in your drafts, replace it with “damn” and then remove it?)

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