Words and Phrases to Avoid


If you miss the humor of this introduction, you won’t after reading this document. The sentence contains a basic grammar error, a style slip, and several vague words.)

When editing a manuscript, some words deserve to die — not always, but usually. In the works we edit, and in our own works, we encounter words and phrases that are overused, imprecise, and… boring. Writing needs to compel readers to continue from one sentence to the next.

This page lists only the greatest annoyances we encounter; they account for the majority of edits we suggest to writers. For more on words to avoid, read our guide to word usage and abusage.

Word List

any infinitive (to walk)
about
all
almost
always
anxiously
believe
eagerly
every
feel
finally
frequently
got
just
merely
nearly
need
never
not
often
only
so
that
“the public”
then
unique
very

Adverbs

When used as modifiers of verbs, adverbs are ambiguous. If he quickly ran, then just how fast did he run? Adverbs do not answer to what degree or extent, despite what grammarians might say.

Adverbs of time are overused. Writers litter manuscripts with words such as finally and then because people do so in speech. Not and other adverbs of manner are easy for writers; while it requires little effort to use these words, better words or phrases can be found in most cases.

Adjectives

Writers should remember that adjectives are relative to a reader’s experiences. Describing a character as tall without specifying a height allows every reader to imagine a different measurement. Some writers prefer to allow audiences a lot of freedom, but doing so can be dangerous.

Words to Kill

about - (adv) Use the phrase went around or a similar phrase that more clearly indicates a sense of direction. (prep) When used colloquially in the phrases how about, what about, and not about to, kill the phrase and rewrite the sentence.

What about going to the party later?

Should we go to the party later?

additionally - Weak transition.

all / every - All and every imply absolute quantities.

almost / nearly - Approximations should be used sparingly. Use almost or nearly when a precise measurement is unrealistic in fiction or impossible.

always / never - Absolutes either lock a writer into a position or give the appearance of conceit. Use these words when the absolute is a command or instruction.

Always make sure the nuclear reactor chamber is sealed properly.

amazing / wonderful (et cetera) - Avoid overstating how special a person, thing, or event is. Romance novels, in particular, overuse these words.

anxiously / eagerly - Anxiously implies with anxiety and eagerly implies with anticipation. Both are weak adverbs that can be replaced by better describing a situation.

She waited anxiously.

She sat waiting, biting her lip and looking around the room.

believe - Change sentences that start with I believe to statements of certainty, especially in academic or business writing. You do not want readers to question your viewpoint or doubt your conclusions.

big / small; short / tall - Remember each reader has a unique perspective from which he or she views other people. Give precise descriptions of characters when possible.

currently - In present tense sentences, action and being are current.

feel - You do not feel an opinion. Feel should be reserved for physical conditions and actions.

finally - When describing a series of events, the word finally indicates laziness on the part of the writer. Finally implies an exhaustion or distaste for the series.

first created - Redundant.

have got - You have something, without the got.

in order to - Wordy. Replace with to.

literally - Literally means in a literal manner or sense. Current informal use is to use literally to emphasize something that isn't true. Do not use literally when you mean figuratively.

need - There are few needs, but wants and desires are plentiful. You need food, though you might want chocolate.

next / then - When recounting events, then and next are weak transitions. Try eliminating then with specific references to time, location, or list characteristics.

As we drove down Main Street, we first saw Smallville Hardware. Then, across the street was Ma’s Kettle, a popular restaurant. Next, we saw a bar, the post office, and a barbershop. Finally we reached City Hall.


As we drove down Main Street, we first saw Smallville Hardware. Across the street was Ma's Kettle, a popular restaurant. Passing the next block, we saw a bar, the post office, and a barbershop. City Hall greeted us at the end of the street.

not - Not is an adverb meaning in no manner or to no degree. We discourage writers from using not and negative words formed using the prefixes ir- and un- when possible.

often / frequently - Individuals have unique opinions of what constitutes frequently or often. Such measures of time are matters of perspective.

only / merely - Condescending when used to describe a noun.

perfect - Nothing real is perfect. However, one makes exceptions for perfect scores, perfect angles, and the perfect tense of verbs.

the public - The public seldom thinks or acts as a single unit. When a politician claims the public wants something, question what the politician is claiming.

very - Though very is intended to magnify a verb, adjective, or another adverb, it lacks precision. In adverbial phrases modifying adjectival nouns, very can confuse readers. Very is seldom essential. (Now, what’s wrong with seldom in the preceding sentence?)



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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 30-Nov-2013
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach