Book Review: “The Dictionary of Worthless Words”

By Mark Nichol

Numerous usage handbooks provide general guidelines about how to carefully select the right word or phrase for the right job (or reject one unsuitable for its intended use), but The Dictionary of Worthless Words, by Dave Dowling, specializes in the words and phrases to avoid because they are flaccid, redundant, or verbose.

The entries, listed alphabetically, can also be categorized in other ways. Some words, including intensifiers like absolutely, are often extraneous. (The fellow adverb currently, and the adjectival form, current, are almost never necessary.) Meanwhile, phrases such as “recurring motif” and “debate about” include superfluous words; motif and debate alone are sufficient because the added value of the adjective and adverb, respectively, are inherent in the noun. (Brief, in particular, is also often associated with words such as glance and summary that themselves imply brevity.)

Clichéd adjectives such as crystal in “crystal clear” are of minimal value, while readers are likely to perceive doublets like “ongoing and continual” as filler. (“Getting paid by the word, Mr. Writer?”) The anatomical detail in “nodded (one’s) head” is unnecessary, and Dowling includes an entry about redundant abbreviations (including “ATM machine,” “IRA account,” and “PIN number”) to help writers avoid such infelicities.

Tired buzzword phrases like “on the same page” are a drag on what should be tight, vivid writing. “The point I am trying to make is that” is just so much debris to stumble over before one gets to the point. Phrases like “has a tendency to” can easily be condensed to reveal a smothered verb (tends, in this case). (Similar ones like “has the ability to” can be moderately slimmed down to “is able to” or further reduced to can.)

A phrase beginning with not (for example, “not important”) signals the possibility of using a one-word antonym in its place (for example, trivial), and many other common words are categorical indicators of verbosity. These include prepositions such as at, down, and up (in, in particular, is a red flag, as it is the first word in more than ten pages’ worth of Dowling’s phrases), adjectives like exact, first, and small, and simple verbs like is/are and has/had.

Dowling admits that some seemingly unnecessary modifiers can be useful, as in distinguishing a face mask from another type of concealment, but he lists ostentatious, which, yes, defines itself, but I would advise avoiding overuse of multisyllabic terms rather than prohibit them outright. Still, though some of the restrictions are excessive and many of the selections seem obvious, The Dictionary of Worthless Words is a handy resource for helping oneself quickly whittle one’s writing to a more concise form.

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1 Response to “Book Review: “The Dictionary of Worthless Words””

  • Oliver Lawrence

    It’s not a bad book, but many of the examples are poorly written and quite unrealistic.
    Beware also of some of the book’s strictures about omitting needless words; sometimes, apparently needless words can be necessary to prevent ambiguity or double meanings.

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