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”

  • Melanie

    Exemplary information!

    I’ve had a genuine love of language arts for many years and find a great deal of value in tips such as these.

  • Ali

    Thanks, Chris, glad to have helped! And thanks too for taking part in the discussion … I’m sure I learn more from chatting with all you wonderful readers here than I do from writing the articles themselves… 😉

    Best,

    Ali

  • Brian

    “Only” is another of those words to be careful of overusing when writing. At least it is for me anyway. Thanks for your helpful pointers.

  • Chris O’Brien

    Hello again, O devoted editor! Thank you for helping me out regarding the “a bit” meaning of “quite.” In your example, I (a US-born writer now living in Taiwan) would assume “very happy today” and would not think of “slightly happy.” Now “rather” would work in that meaning for me. I guess it’s neglected in the US in this sense. Drat. . .I was brought up watching public TV in the US, watching “All Creatures” and “Charters and Caldecott” and “Reggie Perrin” and “Python” and so. I must have misinterpreted a plethoric amount of “a bit” uses! If other readers here are like me, this can serve, perhaps, as a heads-up. Or did other BBC-via-PBS viewers understand it correctly?? Love to get feedback on that, though of course this isn’t MY mailing list.
    Ali, many kudos and no Snickers to you. Your valuable list serves me often as a springboard to lectures in English classes at the college level. See you in the comments!
    Chris O’Brien

  • Ali

    Hey Chris,

    Right, I’ve looked it up now! The Oxford English Dictionary does list this as the first meaning for QUITE:

    I: “As an intensifier: completely, fully, entirely; to the utmost extent or degree.”

    And it also lists:
    II: “As an emphasizer: actually, really, truly, positively; definitely; very much, considerably”

    But the third meaning is:
    III “As a moderating adverb: to a certain or significant extent or degree; moderately, somewhat, rather; relatively, reasonably.”

    The OED explains that this third meaning can be difficult to distinguise from II, and suggests the difference between II and III is the result of “a shift in meaning being from ‘certainly having the specified character in (at least) some degree’ to ‘having the specified character in some degree (though not completely)’.”

    Hope that helps explain why I said “quite” can be taken to mean “a bit” or “to some extent”…

    Best,

    Ali

  • Ali

    Chris — possibly it’s a UK-English thing, then? I’ll do some more research into “quite” meaning “a bit” and see whether it’s different in other forms of English. It is definitely how I’ve always seen the word used, though. If you gave me the word “quite” on its own, I would instantly think of it meaning “a bit” rather than “thoroughly”.

    I’ll look into it, though, and get back to you! In the meantime, what do other readers think? If I said to you:

    “I’m quite happy today”

    Would you think that I meant “I’m very happy today” or “I’m fairly happy today”?

    Cheers,

    Ali

  • guardian angel

    I must admit, I am learning a lot from this blog. I also have this problem of overusing some words.

    Though some of my articles doesn’t sell much now, I am pretty sure that reading your useful tips will improve my writing skills.

    Thanks.

  • candy

    These are usefull tips.. please.. give more information about writting tips.. Thanks a lot

  • Chris O’Brien

    Thanks for elucidating, Trisha. I have not read “Cell” yet and I haven’t particularly noticed his overusing “had.” Of course, anything can be overdone. I’ll look for this soon. Once this sort of thing is called to my attention, it seems much more obvious ever after, though it had always been present. Cheers!

  • Trisha Bartle

    Chris:

    I didn’t mean that ‘had’ should never be used, but that it is overused. Your example makes perfect sense when said sparingly, but as is the case with Stephen King’s Cell, he used it to describe everything. Nothing is “Jim took the pills with water”. He puts ‘had’ in everything, which then makes it wrong and overused.

    I didn’t use to feel this way about the word. Then someone critiqued a story I wrote, and mentioned that about had. I took out many of them and my writing sounded a lot better.

  • Chris O’Brien

    PS, I have checked a couple of dictionaries online and find some that support the interpretation of “quite” as an indication of a slight affirmation of something, but please note that this is in an ironic sense, not a literal one; in other words, it serves as a sort of sarcastic hyperbole. Cf Wiktionary:
    “1. Completely; wholly; entirely; totally; perfectly.
    “The work is not quite done; you are quite mistaken.

    “2. To a great extent or degree; very; very much; considerably.
    “The car is quite damaged.
    “I find him quite adorable.

    “3. To a moderate extent or degree (tone of speech will often indicate this almost conflicting usage)
    “Well, I quite like the painting.”

    My two New Taiwan dollars. . .

  • Chris O’Brien

    Hi, I want to respond to today’s post, and also to a comment.
    First, I can’t understand what you mean when you say that “quite” is used to mean “a bit.” To me, your example “I quite liked it” doesn’t mean “a bit,” because that would suggest that the implication is that someone liked it only a bit.” Instead, I feel that the sentence’s idea is that they liked it thoroughly, and that is how I think the word should be used generally. Possibly this is just my interpretation.

    Trisha, I wanted to respond to your comment that “had” is an unnecessary word in King’s writing (and elsewhere). I don’t see the examples as using “had” in an unnecessary way; instead, it is part and parcel of the past perfect tense. It’s used in a narrative when the narrator is mentioning something that happens even earlier than the “current” narrative time. If Jim, in your example, is at the time of narration, feeling ill, the narrator can explain that this is a result of Jim having previously taken the aforementioned pills. In these situations, removing “had” would imply that “Jim took the pills with water” at the current moment in the story instead of previously, because the tense would have been changed to the simple past.
    Sorry to be in lecture mode; I’m a writing teacher in Taiwan for ESL and need to explain such things incessantly. If I have misunderstood your comment, I apologize.
    Regards to all readers!

  • Mary

    Another one you can cut is “both”. Many times people say “both” the word “and” is somewhere soon after. “And” tells you that it is both, so you can cut it out and say the same thing.

    For example, Both Mary and Jane want the same job. You can cut out the word “both” and it says the same thing.

  • Dave

    It’s those simple posts like these THAT make me keep coming back for more!

  • Trisha Bartle

    “Had” is the worst to me. And there are so many authors that over-use it, including Stephen King (who is otherwise awesome.)

    Example:

    “Jim had taken the pills, and had swallowed them with a glass of water.”

    I cringe at stuff like that.

  • Ali

    Thanks for the comments, all 🙂

    Rose — cheers for spotting the typo, and Daniel, cheers for fixing!

    Deborah — I wrote a 60-word story once (it was published in Woman’s Weekly), and I totally agree with you!

    Patsi, yep, “very” is overused and often not needed. I considered including “maybe” in the article but thought it was too similar to “perhaps”…

    Ali

  • Patsi Krakoff, The Blog Squad

    I gotta add “very” and “maybe”… this was a very good piece and maybe I’ll post about it today…

  • Mitali

    Its “quite” interesting & worth reading!
    THANKS!

  • Santhosh

    An interesting post and some good observations. Can you come with some more unnecessary words?

  • Elvina

    Perhaps (!) you might address the problem of using ‘but’ before a verb, as in ‘I couldn’t help but think . . .’ ‘I couldn’t help thinking . . .’ drops unnecessary words and is much clearer.

  • Greg

    After reading the sentence, “It’s also unclear whether you do need those documents straight away, or whether you’re simply enquiring whether they could be sent soon,” I suggest you add “whether” to your list.

  • Deborah

    I write 100-word stories. It’s shocking—what can be cut.

  • Diddums

    Very true; I’m always deleting half the words I typed in.

    Yesterday I was reading an old grammar book (published in the 60s and re-edited in the 80s) and it was talking about the ‘less versus fewer’ trap. It suggested there are some situations where you would get away with using ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’… for instance, when avoiding ‘a few fewer’. I wasn’t at all convinced. I didn’t like the example, wouldn’t have accepted it, and was inclined to think we should drop the ‘a few’ altogether in that example, as it’s not usually necessary.

    ‘A few’ is part of the way we temper our speech… ‘slightly’, ‘a bit’, ‘somewhat’, ‘reasonably’ etc.

  • Daniel Scocco

    I fixed the “quiet” typo, sorry about that. It is my fault (the editor), not Ali’s fault (the author).

  • Vismay

    “That’s really good”, though sounding a bit childish is a source of encouragement for some.

  • Prachi

    Its worth reading!!!
    Thanks

  • Rose

    You ought to be more careful about your spellings. You’ll find you’ve made ‘quite’ a few errors.

    🙂

  • OldSailor

    Many of us wrongly use the words “quite” and “quiet”. This also need to be taken care.

  • Timothy

    “This really is just the tip that I quite needed to hear and put into practice perhaps.”
    –>
    “This is the tip I needed to hear and put into practice.”

    I see, it is nicer this way.

    Thank you. 😉

  • Hugo

    Great, thanks. I really think that I just wrote a post using quite a lot of those words 🙂
    I still have to learn a lot.

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