Writing tips: words to avoid Reply

There are a few words that you should treat with the utmost suspicion: just, really, quite, literally, very. Mark Twain advised, ‘Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.’ As for ‘literally’, its misuse often results in absurdity.


Video transcript follows below:

Talking is, em, well it’s not easy, you know? It just– sometimes it’s really, really hard to think quickly enough to– And just sitting talking in front of a camera is, like, literally my nightmare. Honestly, it really is very, very difficult for me.

That’s why I, like most people, use filling words such as very, just, literally, really, like, quite. Since I’ve no aspirations to become a great orator, that’s not really a problem. But when we write we’re expected to edit out our thinking process.

There are a few words that you should treat with the utmost suspicion: just, really, quite, literally, very. Mark Twain advised, ‘Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.’ But it was probably William Carlos Williams, the imagist poet, who most succinctly conveyed the problem with ‘very.’ He said, ‘very is the least very word in the language.’

As for ‘literally’, its misuse often results in absurdity. Followers of football – or soccer, depending on where you come from – will be familiar with the Andy Townsend paradox. Townsend is a football pundit who can’t resist the word ‘literally’. He tells us ‘What a chance that was – literally delivered to him on a plate.’ And ‘Servet is literally – literally – up his backside.’

But he’s far from the only sports commentator afflicted with this problem. During the European Athletics championships Stuart Storey advised us that, ‘as athletes these triple jumpers are literally human kangaroos,’ which to my mind makes the whole competition a wee bit unfair. You had to admire the professionalism of the BBC breakfast team as they kept broadcasting seamlessly despite announcing that ‘Dave on the Phones’ head has literally exploded.’ And if you’re wondering where to go on holiday, why not try Bali? According to the BBC Holiday Programme, ‘Go through any door in Bali and you literally step into another world.’ It’s like taking a trip to Narnia. It certainly beats a meeting with the Bristol Chamber of Commerce; according to their chairman, they have ‘literally got fingers in pies all over the place,’ which is all well and good but is rather disgusting when you have to shake hands with them over a business lunch, their fingers dripping with steak and kidney and ham and leek. Meanwhile, the prize for the most boring but correct use of the word literally surely goes to BBC Radio 5, whose reported announced, ‘I am literally in a shop.’

Have you got any particularly hated words? Please share your list in the comments below.

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

(The thumbnail image for this video was captured by Steve Rotman. It’s covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/people/phunk/. Also covered by Creative Commons licenses are the photographs of Andy Townsend and the human kangaroo. The Townsend photo was taken by Marion O’Sullivan, whose work you can find here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mollyig/). The ‘human kangaroo’ image was taken by Paul Hockensar, whose work you can find here: https://www.flickr.com/people/vermininc/.)

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