30 Problem Words and Phrases

By Mark Nichol

Tried-and-true words and phrases are convenient, but they are also truly trying — as with clichés, when a writer relies too heavily on stock usage, the resulting prose is tired and uninspired. Watch out for the following deadly usages.

1. After having: “After looking around, I chose a seat” is fine, and so is “Having looked around, I chose a seat,” but “After having looked around, I chose a seat” is redundant. “Having” means that the action has already been performed, so the context is clear that the writer is writing after the fact.

2. Aged: Identifying the age or age range of a person or a group with this word puts the subject(s) in a category with cheese or wine. Write “50 years old,” for example, instead of “aged 50 years,” or “ages 21–34” rather than “aged 21–34.”

3. Aggravate: To aggravate is to make something worse, not to bother, annoy, or irritate.

4. And also: And and also are redundant; use one or the other.

5. Anticipate: To anticipate is to foresee (and perhaps act on that foresight), not to expect.

6. Anxious: To be anxious is to feel distressed or worried, not eager.

7. Approximately: How about using about instead? Save three syllables. For scientific or technical references, approximately is fine, but it’s a bit much in most other contexts.

8. As to whether: “As to” is extraneous; use whether only.

9. At this point in time: Omit this meaningless filler.

10. Basically, essentially, totally: Basically, these words are essentially nonessential, and you can totally dispense with them.

11. Being as/being that: Replace these phrases with because.

12. Considered to be: “To be” is extraneous; write considered only, or consider deleting it as well.

13. Could care less: No, you couldn’t. You want to convey that it’s not possible for you to care
less, so you couldn’t care less.

14. Due to the fact that: Replace this phrase with because.

15. Each and every: Write “Each item is unique,” or “Every item is unique,” but not “Each and every item is unique.”

16. Equally as: As is superfluous; write equally only.

17. Was a factor, is a factor, will be a factor: If your writing includes one of these phrases, its presence is a sign that you’re not done revising yet; rewrite “The vehicle’s condition is a factor in performance,” for example, to “The vehicle’s condition affects its performance.”

18. Had ought: Had is redundant; use ought only.

19. Have got: Got is suitable for informal writing only; if you’re referring to necessity, consider must rather than “have got,” and if the reference is to simple possession, delete got from the phrase “have got.”

20. In many cases/it has often been the case: Reduce the word count in statements containing these verbose phrases by replacing “in many cases” with often, for example.

21. In the process of: This extraneous phrasing is acceptable in extemporaneous speaking but unnecessarily verbose in prepared oration and in writing.

22. Is a . . . which/who: If you find yourself writing a phrase like this, step back and determine how to write it more succinctly; “Smith is a man who knows how to haggle,” for example, can be abbreviated to “Smith knows how to haggle.”

23. Kind of/sort of: In formal writing, if you must qualify a statement, use a more stately qualifier such as rather, slightly, or somewhat.

24. Lots/lots of: In formal writing, employ many or much in place of one of these colloquialisms.

25. Of a . . . character: If you use character as a synonym for quality, make the reference concise. “The wine has a musty character” is better rendered “The wine tasted musty, and “He was a man with a refined character” can be revised to the more concise statement “The man was refined,” but better yet, describe how the man is refined.

26. Of a . . . nature: Just as with character, when you use nature as a synonym for quality, pare the phrasing down: Reduce “She had a philosophical nature,” for example, to “She was philosophical.”

27. Oftentimes: An outdated, unnecessary complication of often.

28. On account of: Replace this awkward phrase with because.

29. Renown: Renown is the noun (as well as a rarely used verb); renowned is the adjective. Avoid the like of “the renown statesman.”

30. Thankfully: In formal usage, this word is not considered a synonym for fortunately.

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20 Responses to “30 Problem Words and Phrases”

  • Jo

    One could add “so as to” instead of using simply “to.”

    On another note, as a copy editor, I have found my hands often smacked with that imaginary ruler for making the mentioned changes because it results in “changing the author’s style”–a frustrating experience when one’s directive is to tighten the text.

  • Bill

    Do me a favor and make number 13 number one, put it in bold and hike the type size up to newspaper headline size. It comes from lazy speech and now you find people who think it’s grammatically correct. When they’re too thick to understand the logic of the error, I know I’m not going to be great friends with them.

  • Lynn

    I recently subscribed to your tips and appreciate the info, but I’m wondering what your source is for #2. I too prefer the sound of “age three,” but as a book editor I have to (begrudgingly) abide by the official style guides. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, “aged three years” is correct. Dictionaries also cite “aged” (adj.) as “Having reached the age of: aged three.” Care to revise that item? If we all start using “aged” maybe eventually it won’t sound so odd!

  • Ryan

    I’m probably wrong, but isn’t the -ing in having make it a present progressive verb. As in “I’m having my cake and eating it too.” In your book you label have as a helping verb, and use it in the future perfect example. I agree that the other ways of writing the examples in #1 are better, as they are more concise. I don’t agree that ‘after having’ is redundant.
    I’d be happy to reach a new level of understanding though. Please explain.

  • Nelson Carter

    What about “if he would have” to mean “if he had”?
    Also, isn’t “whether or not” redundant for “whether”?

  • thebluebird11

    I plead guilty, guilty, guilty. I resent the fact that these phrases have become ubiquitous and fall off my tongue as I pay no attention to their redundancy or wordiness.
    Just for the record, let me take stock of my guilt: #1, I’m sure; #7, yes; #8, probably. #10 and #23, TOTALLY. I basically use those words essentially, like, all the time, kinda sorta (OK, only when speaking to good friends). #12 and #21, yes and yes. Whew. Maybe not so terrible then, only 6 of 30. I think I can work on that. New Year’s Resolution, check!
    @Bill, I am with you on that!

  • Warsaw Will

    #19 – I would have thought “have got to” is simply an informal idiomatic version of “have to” rather than “must”, which tends to have a stronger, more urgent or more personal sense.

    If we changed “I’ve got to finish this by the end of the week” (it’s Monday) to “I must finish this by the end of the week”, we’ve arguably introduced a sense of urgency that didn’t exist in the original. But with “I have to finish this by the end of the week” the meaning remains exactly the same as in the informal version. The rule is surely the same as for “have got” – “have got” = “have”, “have got to” = “have to”. That’s what we teach our EFL students at any rate.

    And think of negatives – “haven’t got to” definitely doesn’t mean “mustn’t”, but it does mean “not have to”.

    @Nelson Carter – not always – in a sentence like “We’re going now, whether you like it or not”, the “or not” is essential.

  • Susan Perry

    Would you please address “try and” used instead of “try to”? “I will try and make it to the party. “Are both correct? I see “try and” everywhere and it makes my head hurt. Is it just me?

  • Marcia Inman

    I’ve searched DWT for a comment on my pet peeve, and haven’t found it. I frequently hear on commercials and news programs a misplaced negative modifier — “All insurance companies are not alike,” or “All fruit drinks are not the same.” I can’t think when I last heard what I consider the correct placement: “Not all electric cars are small.” Am I right to cringe? Or are my students correct in thinking I’m an old prune?

  • Mark Nichol

    Susan:

    “Try to” is the correct form. “Try and” is a redundant colloquialism.

  • Mark Nichol

    Lynn:

    I couldn’t find a reference in The Chicago Manual of Style about whether to write age or aged in the usage I refer to in this post. In Chicago‘s online Q&A section, a response refers the correspondent to a dictionary but also states parenthetically that age is correct. Merriam-Webster Online cites aged as having this meaning, but a word’s appearance in the dictionary means it is used in the given sense, not that such usage is advised.

  • Pylgrim

    I completely understand the need of being concise in writing, but I believe some of these tips take it rather too far, to the point of omitting information. As an instance, the “incorrect” example in number 22 is informing us that Smith is -in addition to a crafty haggler- a man, which is actually a good example of using an alternative way of describing something that adds information and in the long term produces more concise writing (in this case, since we won’t have to spend another sentence stating that Smith is a human male.)

    Or, in case 26/27, describing a person as of a ____ nature/character may be used to contrast it to his or her actual actions or behaviour. In the example provided, what makes her “philosophical”? Was she strictly raised like that? Is she naturally inquisitive? or is she in some line of work that encourages being analytical? Saying that “she is of a philosophical nature” immediately answers that without adding too many words.

    Conciseness makes reading easier and more pleasurable. However, there is a richness to language that sparks one’s wit and adds “spice” to an otherwise generic piece of writing. The latter shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of the former.

  • thebluebird11

    To me, “aged” (pronounced with one syllable) sounds like something that applies to wine or cheese, “aging” being a particular processing method that is applied to these items to allow them to come to full flavor. IMHO, people aren’t “aged” in that way (OTOH, maybe we are!). When “aged” is pronounced with 2 syllables (A-ged), as an adjective, that is obviously different, and applies to people, and I guess also to animals (e.g. “an aged horse”).
    In my experience, people who used the word “aged” are mostly those whose first language was not English. I believe that your average American would say “a 3-year-old child” or “The child, age 3…” So if I see “aged,” I automatically think, “This is a foreigner speaking/writing,” or else someone pompous or affecting a bit of what they perceive to be foreign flair, because to me there is a somewhat stilted sound to it.

  • Corey Tomlinson

    Several of these also fit into one of the biggest traps I’ve seen in writing; namely, weakening your argument or point by using “qualifying” phrases. Avoiding at this point in time, basically, essentially, in many cases, and in the process of are important when making a solid case. I’m glad they were on this list.

    Oh, and I couldn’t agree more with Bill about #13! That one has bothered me for years!

  • Warsaw Will

    @Mark (re: Susan’s comment) – “Try and” may be a colloquialism, but I don’t see how it’s a redundancy. Fowler recognised it as an established standard idiom and MWDEU has plenty of examples from published literature. It seems to be especally useful when “try” is itself a to-infinitive, where two to’s might be a bit much; I would have thought “We need to try and solve this quickly” sounds rather better than “We need to try to solve this quickly”.

  • Sally

    Some of your ‘problems’ are simply attempts at novelty – extending the meanings of ‘anticipate’ and ‘aggravate’ for example.

    Most of the others –both the grammatical errors and the filler phrases – are precisely those that occur when someone is being harassed for a comment / answer in our time-poor society where “dead air = an interval where no-one talks” is inadmissible on radio/TV and hardly less of a problem for newspapers.

    That having been said, most of these phrases – and many more – aggravate me too 🙂

  • Mark Nichol

    Marcia:

    I dislike the “all . . . are not” error, too, but I don’t think it merits an entire post on its own. When I think of a more inclusive topic under which I can cover the subject among others, I’ll attend to it.

  • Margaret

    I don’t think “The wine is musty.” is better than “The wine has a musty character.” The former is too abrupt and sounds like a negative comment, while the latter leaves open the question of whether that element of the wine’s character (or, quality) is good or bad.
    I agree with Pylgrim that: Conciseness makes reading easier and more pleasurable. However, there is a richness to language that sparks one’s wit and adds “spice” to an otherwise generic piece of writing. The latter shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of the former.

  • thebluebird11

    A bit late…
    @Marcia and Mark: I am not sure why you say “all…are not” is an error. I perceive it as a direct response to a declaration, whether that declaration has actually been expressed or not. I see it mainly in advertising (oral or written), and it is the response to someone (literally or theoretically) having said (for example), “Aww, all insurance companies are alike.” The comeback is therefore, “All insurance companies are NOT alike.” And the advertiser will then go on to tell you exactly why and how that particular insurance company is different, and, presumably, better.
    It is a way, as I see it, of beating the nay-sayers and doubters to the punch.

  • Kev

    About half of these are either wrong or opinion. Use the dictionary and context, people.

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