Five Words You Can Cut

By Ali Hale

One of the best ways to make your writing stronger is to cut unnecessary words. Many people tend to over-write, often in a similar way to how they would speak. Words creep in that add no meaning and can make a piece of writing sound vague and woolly rather than confidence and precise.

Just

This is one of the worst offenders for me. I over-use it in email, typing:

  • “I just thought I’d drop you a note…”
  • “Just writing to ask…”
  • “If you could just give me a call…”

In almost every case, striking out the word “just” will make a sentence stronger. It tends to make you sound either desperate when applied to yourself (“I just wondered if you could…”) or demanding when applied to the other person (“If you would just…”).

Really

Like “just”, this is another word which can frequently be cut. It’s often found partnering “just”, in which case you might want to rewrite the whole sentence.

  • “You can really improve by…”
  • “You don’t really want to…”
  • “I’m really just trying to …”

Using the word “really” about yourself makes it sounds as though you believe the other person is unsure of your intentions; “I’m really writing the report” can sound defensive. And using it about someone else can sound patronising – phrases like “that’s really good!” are best kept for the kindergarten.

Quite

This insidious word tends to water down the meaning of a sentence or, worse, make it unclear. It usually means “a bit” as in “I quite liked it”, but can also mean “completely” as in “Quite right.” Most people have little difficulty understanding those, but sentences like “I was quite outraged” can be taken either way.

  • “I’d quite like you to …”
  • “I’m feeling quite upset about it.”
  • “I don’t think you quite understand…”

There are some circumstances where you may well want to keep the word “quite”, particularly when trying to justify something over-running. “Quite” is useful in suggesting both “almost there” and “soon”, and saying “The files aren’t quite ready yet …” implies it won’t be much longer, whereas “The files aren’t ready yet” can sound like stone-walling.

Perhaps

Like many of the words above, “perhaps” makes your writing sound uncertain. It can obscure meaning, or weaken an otherwise powerful statement, and often causes confusion.

  • “Perhaps we could meet at twelve for lunch.”
  • “And then perhaps you’d like to …”
  • “Perhaps if I …”

The main problem in all these cases is that the word “perhaps” means your intention is unclear. If you email someone suggesting “Perhaps we could meet at twelve for lunch”, are you proposing a lunch meeting, or just idly wondering whether it’s possible? The “perhaps” also makes it unclear what part of the suggestion is in doubt; do you think twelve might not be the best time, or do you suspect the other person won’t want to get lunch?

That

This is another word which creeps into my writing where it’s not needed. It’s fine when necessary, but can often be cut without any loss of meaning – usually when it’s preceded by a noun.

  • “This is the house that Jack built.”
  • “Can you remember the time that we asked people to arrive?”
  • “I liked the design that you came up with.”

Make sure you don’t cut valid instances of the word, usually where “that” comes before the noun. “I need that document by five” makes sense, “I need document by five” is only safe in a very informal context and if you’re sure the other person knows which document you mean.

Putting it all together

If you email someone with —

“I really just wondered if perhaps you could send those documents that I mentioned quite soon.”

— you come across as diffident, uncertain and sound like you’re babbling. It’s also unclear whether you do need those documents straight away, or whether you’re simply enquiring whether they could be sent soon.

But if you delete the five unnecessary words, you’ll get —

“I really just wondered if perhaps you could send those documents that I mentioned quite soon.”

“I wondered if you could send those documents I mentioned soon.”

This sentence is much clearer, more concise, and likely to elicit a quick response.

So when you’ve written an email, article, report or even a piece of fiction, check through for the words just, really, quite, perhaps and that – and see if you can improve the piece by cutting them out.

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53 Responses to “Five Words You Can Cut”

  • John

    Why has this typo survived for over two years?

    …vague and woolly rather than confidence and precise…

    I assume that you meant “confident”?

    To be a good writer it is essential to read what you have written, not what you thought you wrote.

  • Marcia

    How can I rewrite sentences for motivational writings, so the word YOU does not appear too often?
    Example:
    Are you pretending to be something that you are not? Doing that means you will never be the person you were meant to be. The truth will set you free. Be responsible for your life by fixing yourself and not waiting around for someone else to take the power over you, to fix you.

  • raza

    “Could you send those documents I mentioned?” would be even more concise…not sure the “I wondered” part is needed…

    the one that makes me cringe though it is more spoken than written is “basically”…

  • Lucie Carruthers

    I was wondering about the use of “as” in fiction writing, when I stumbled across this website. I used “as” 68 times in 29 pages. It seems like “quite” an overuse of a necessary word. Suggestions for other ways to say the same thing?

    For instance: As the man left the house, he…
    He is as crazy as a loon.
    …as though…
    …as soon as…
    …as he…
    …as quickly as…
    …she asked, as a slight edge came into view…

  • Josh Humble

    I agree with the omitting of these and many other words in our vocabulary for many instances; however, as noted in other comments, you’ve made “quite” a few errors in this article, and their context do not appear to be satirical.

  • khat

    ‘THAT’ is my nemesis!

  • Ken Turnbull

    The word ‘that’ is essential as an introduction to a substantival clause, as below:

    “The judge found the sum of $2.5 million, which had been salted away in a Swiss bank account, was the property of the claimant.”

    You have to read most of the way through the sentence before realising that the judge did not have an amazing find. Putting ‘that’ after ‘found’ clears it up immediately.

    Some verbs are particularly susceptible to taking on the wrong object if the ‘that’ signal is missing — verbs such as recommend, believe, suggest.

    I’m an editor, and it drives me crazy constantly fixing such poor expression. Sometime in the dim past, someone created a ‘law’ to eliminate the word ‘that’ in most instances. It’s not valid.

  • Karin Ponce

    I’ve caught myself crossing those very words out of my writings – writings done in my own natural voice – every single time I take the time and effort to edit my own work with a careful eye. The difficult thing is breaking the habit of my speech and thought process! I will carry with me, and place in front of my computer, this list of words I overuse in speech and in writing. I mean it!

    On the author’s question of ‘quite,’ I, US born and raised, perceive it as meaning ‘thoroughly’ in your application.

    This article and its subsequent conversation is the most enjoyable reading I’ve had in weeks! Thank you for that.

  • Sam

    I know this reply is quite late, but perhaps I really just wanted to share that I use these words all the time (even when I am not trying to!). I think if I went through my writing more carefully, I would be able to eliminate many more words than I already do. I still have a long way to go to reduce my wordiness.

    Incidentally, you should write a piece on the use of “whether” versus “if.” You may be surprised at how many times people (including yourself–sorry!) use whether in the wrong place.

  • Allwynn

    I discovered this website from Twitter — and can’t tell you how much I have learned in the past few days!

    Thank you for talking about something as basic as this. I need reminders!

  • aperjerr

    Hi all.

    I really loves this blog as it helps me alot in my workbook assignment and still having problem of keep using the word ‘thus’, ‘hence’ and ‘therefore’ in my report. Now I try to use ‘as such’. Could anyone enlighten me on how cut down this words to make my report sounds professional?

    Tks.

  • Trevor

    When the words are being used in dialogue, you need to go with the voice of your character rather than what is technically correct.

    You need to be consistent but, as the writer says, overuse of words is a product of speech patterns. The main thing to guard against if you have a personal tendency to use those words, is to ensure the speech patterns aren’t shared by a narrator and an unrelated character unless there is a good reason for it.

  • Danica-Christine

    Thank you for taking the time to explain the above in detail; it has aided me in my writing tremendously.

    I have copied the above into an arch file for future revision. Your work is a god-sent!

    Thank you once again.

    Blessed be.

  • dex

    Thanks, this helped me. Basically, is another word that I have realized that I hear overused and I realized that I am famous for it as well.

  • suanu

    I really think that you have quite a good grasp of just the kind of information writers might perhaps want to consider to improve their writing.

    or better still

    i think you have a good grasp of the kind of information writers might want to consider to improve their writing.Haha!

  • Carl to the D

    Just because I really use these words quite a lot doesn’t mean I should change. Perhaps, after putting it all together that shouldn’t matter. All kidding aside, I appreciate this blog site and the weekly feeds. Keep up the good work!

  • misty lim

    i wish tat i can get more information for writing. i hope i can improve myself here. thank you.

  • Kacie Landrum

    I would argue that ‘had’ is under-used, not over-used. About three times a week I stumble across something online where the author has neglected to put verbs in past perfect tense, instead using the simple past tense to describe an action that obviously took place before the current ‘now’ of the story. It drives me nuts.

  • marjan

    hi
    it was the first time i read your site.
    it is very usefull.

  • Prabhakar

    Wow! Quite a valubale suggestion. I too use them a lot. It’s an eye-opener for sure.

  • jaats

    it was great to read it..
    thanks for helping…

  • Copywriting 911

    Demonstrative pronouns are overused as well. For example, “Those people who weren’t listed” can be replaced with “people who weren’t listed” or “those who weren’t listed”.

  • cmdweb

    Great to see a site with down to earth, good common sense advice. I’m more guilty than most of ‘flowering up’ my e-mails and things with these words and could probably gain from taking your advice.
    The comments themselves are a gold mine!
    Keep up the good work.

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