Words and Phrases to Avoid
When editing a manuscript, some words deserve to die — not always, but usually. (If you miss the humor of the preceding sentence, you won’t after reading this document. The sentence contains a basic grammar error, a style slip, and several “vague” words.)
The words listed in the table below appear in order of popularity. Words and phrases abused with the greatest frequency top the list. For more on words to avoid, read our guide to word usage and abusage.
Avoid any “uncertain” words or phrases. The two that appear frequently in academic papers are “I feel” and “I believe.”
believe - Change sentences that start with “I believe” to statements of certainty, especially in academic or business writing. You do not want readers to question your viewpoint or doubt your conclusions.
have got - You have something, without the “got.”
feel - You do not “feel” an opinion. Feel should be reserved for physical condictions and actions.
When used as modifiers of verbs, adverbs are ambiguous. If “he quickly ran,” then just how fast did he run? Adverbs do not answer to what degree or extent, despite what grammarians might say.
Adverbs of time are overused. Writers litter manuscripts with words such as “finally” and “then” because people do so in speech. “Not” and other adverbs of manner are easy for writers; while it requires little effort to use these words, better words or phrases can be found in most cases.
very - While “very” is intended to magnify a verb, adverb, or noun, it lacks precision. “Very” is seldom essential. (Now, what’s wrong with “seldom” in the preceding sentence?)
not - “Not” is an adverb meaning “in no manner” or “to no degree.” We discourage writers from using “not” and negative words formed using the prefixes “ir-” and “un-” when possible.
never / always - Absolutes either lock a writer into a position or give the appearance of conceit. Use these words when the absolute is a command or instruction.
Always make sure the nuclear reactor chamber is sealed properly.
often / frequently - Individuals have unique opinions of what constitutes frequently or often. Such measures of time are matters of perspective.
almost / nearly - Approximations should be used sparingly. Use “almost” or “nearly” when a precise measurement is unrealistic in fiction or impossible.
anxiously / eagerly - “Anxiously” implies with anxiety and “eagerly” implies with anticipation. Both are weak adverbs that can be replaced by better describing a situation.
She waited anxiously.
She sat waiting, biting her lip and looking around the room.
only / merely - Condescending when used to describe a noun.
finally - When describing a series of events, the word “finally” indicates laziness on the part of the writer. “Finally” implies an exhaustion or distaste for the series.
then / next - When recounting events, “then” and “next” are weak transitions. Try eliminating “then” with specific references to time, location, or list characteristics.
As we drove down Main Street, we first saw Smallville Hardware. Then, across the street was Ma’s Kettle, a popular restaurant. Next, we saw a bar, the post office, and a barbershop. Finally we reached City Hall.
As we drove down Main Street, we first saw Smallville Hardware. Across the street was Ma's Kettle, a popular restaurant. Passing the next block, we saw a bar, the post office, and a barbershop. City Hall greeted us at the end of the street.
Writers must remember that adjectives are relative to a reader’s experiences. Describing a character as tall without specifying a height allows every reader to imagine a different measurement. Some writers prefer to allow audiences a lot of freedom, but doing so can be dangerous.
amazing / wonderful / etc - Avoid overstating how special a person, thing, or event is. Romance novels, in particular, overuse these words.
big / small, short / tall - Remember each reader has a unique perspective from which he or she views other people. Give precise descriptions of characters when possible.
all / every - “All” and “every” imply absolute quantities.
perfect - Nothing real is perfect. However, one makes exceptions for perfect scores, perfect angles, and the perfect tense of verbs.
the public - The public seldom thinks or acts as a single unit. When a politician claims “the public” wants something, question what the politician is claiming.
need - There are few needs, but wants and desires are plentiful. You need food, though you might want chocolate.
about - (adv) Use the phrase “went around” or a similar phrase that more clearly indicates a sense of direction. (prep) When used colloquially in the phrases “how about,” “what about,” and “not about to,” kill the phrase and rewrite the sentence.
What about going to the party later?
Should we go to the party later?