Please Never Use These Words in Writing

People often say that we should write as we speak. This dictum is true to a point. The dictum means to help us write without pretentious language. That much is good. The dictum doesn't attend to a more important point: clarity. Clarity is more important in writing than in speaking, because the writer is often unavailable for further clarification. We attain clarity by attending to a few principles. Among these points are:

  • Cutting out words that add no meaning
  • Using only the standard meanings of words
  • Using the simplest word for any particular job

Below are a few examples of words we often use that we often shouldn't.

Basically

We usually use basically to mean, "The bottom line is..." Your writing will have much more punch if you just say the bottom line.

Please never write something like:

Basically, we need to get started by New Year's if we are going to have a successful Q1.

Instead, thrill your audience by shortening your sentence.

We need to get started by New Year's if we are going to have a successful Q1.

It seems trivial, but an 18-page document can be cut down to 17 pages just by removing this sort of fluff. Of course, a really savage guardian copy editor would insist on something like this:

We need to start by New Year's to succeed in Q1.

We've just shortened the 18-page document to 11 pages without the loss of any meaning. Whoa. Things are getting crazy.

Honestly

It's easy to see how honestly got used to mean, "What I really think is," and then "Really," or "I emphatically believe..." Please stop using this word as a crutch. Your sentence will limp less if you let it walk on its own subject and predicate. Please only use honestly when you mean something opposite to dishonestly.

When I read something like:

I honestly believe that she is the best person for the job.

The little snark monster in me laughs, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." Who ever accused you of dishonesty?

Far better:

She is the best person for the job.

Actually

We often use actually to mean something like, "On the other hand," or to introduce some thought or sentiment contrary to expectation. Its meaning is really something more like the opposite to potentially. We use it almost like a long um... to give us time to write. But it usually just slows down our readers.

Actually, Jack always promises to arrive on time. This time, he actually did.

Do you see the difference between the two actuallys?

Jack always promises to arrive on time. This time, he actually did.

Literally

This is the pet peeve of many, so I won't go on too much. Bottom line up front: literally does not mean very or emphatically. It means something like just as it is written or according to the letter. Please only ever use the word in this way. Every time you use this word wrong, you poke the English language with a toothpick and you take an axe to your own poor specimen of it. Actually, a kitten dies. A kitten.

Utilize and Leverage

Utilize is used when we want to sound smart. But you know what's smart? Clarity, precision, and simplicity. Use use. You think they mean the same thing, so just go with the simpler word. But here's the funny part. Originally, utilize didn't mean the same thing as use. From the Latin utilis ("useful") and -ize (to make), it meant, to make something useful. You used to utilize a thing so you could use it.

In his 1873 Modern English, Fitzedward Hall remarks, "Utilize is fast antiquating improve, in the sense of 'turn to account,'" (p190) which gives us a sense of its earlier meaning.

Words' meanings evolve. That's fine. But still: use. Just use use. I promise you will not sound dumb or unbusinesslike if you do. Same goes for leverage.

The following may sound boring:

We use leading technologies to serve our customers.

Nothing is done to improve it by replacing use with utilize or leverage.

In sum

Please think of the kittens.

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