A few words in need of time off

A brief conversation on Twitter this morning with the clever @Brevity24 got me thinking about a tiny pet peeve. His question:

Q for writers: with priorities on clarity, succinctness, and flow, what’s the consensus on using the word “that”? See my last vss. #writing

The  vss in question specifically used “that” in the sense of, for example, “I thought that she left.”

I’m no grammarian, really. I’m sure flipping through my blog entries, you’ll find plenty of errors (although I try not to make it an egregious trend). But since the question was put before, my answer: “That” has got to be one of the most overused words today. So many people use it as in the example above, and it’s not necessary. It even disrupts the cadence of most sentences. This is where I would go on to bore you with details of metrical feet and stressed/unstressed syllables, but I know you probably don’t care, so I’ll leave it there.

My point here is this: there are words we use in our everyday language that* have become so commonplace, they’re very nearly meaningless. We stick them into our sentences because of habit, not because they contribute. I’ll list just a few here that particularly get under my skin because I’m as guilty as anyone else. The few words that I’ve chosen here are ones that I’ve had to make a conscious effort not to let slip into this very post.

Actually

  • Main Entry: ac·tu·al·ly
  • Pronunciation: \ˈak-ch(ə-w)ə-lē, -sh(ə-w)ə-lē; ˈaksh-lē, ˈaks-\
  • Function: adverb
  • Date: 15th century

1 : in act or in fact : really <nominally but not actually independent — Karl Loewenstein> <won’t actually arrive for an hour>
2 : in point of fact —used to suggest something unexpected <he could actually read the Greek>

Based on these definitions, I’m not here to argue that the way the word is most often used is incorrect. I just don’t think it’s always necessary. Consider the example in the first definition: “won’t actually arrive for an hour.” Doesn’t it suffice to say, “won’t arrive for an hour?”

Although it’s not expressly defined this way here, the connotation I get from “actually” is essentially, “No, you’re wrong. Let me set you straight.” A tad condescending, no? Maybe it’s just me. If it’s not, do we need to spend so much time so overtly correcting each other?

Really

“I really hate it when…,” “I really want,” or “He really rocks.” “Really” is basically an extra shot of whatever it’s modifying. But nowadays, it seems we have to use it to validate any position we take, because otherwise our expression is just too watered down. It’s like a caffeine addict needing two cups of coffee just to be at a normal functioning level; without it, he’s just too weak to go about his day. Meanwhile, someone who rarely consumes caffeine is completely wired and overwhelming after two cups of joe, right? It’s okay to say:

“I want a BLT for lunch.”
“I’m tired of this rain.”
“I’d like to go to that concert.”

If you modify each of these sentences with “really,” then how meaningful is it when you say:

“I really want to go to the Super Bowl,” or
“I really hope I win the lottery tonight.”

Adding a little extra stress to the first syllable helps a little, I know. But not enough. Let’s make the word begin to make a difference when we use it.

Honestly

Not much to say here. I would just like to point out that, in general, most people around you assume that your default position when you speak is honesty. Clarifying that what you’re saying this time is honest has the potential to bring your other statements into question. It’s tempting, I know, when you’re trying to sugarcoat something to say, “Honestly, we’ve had delays in getting information from that department,” but don’t. The qualifier doesn’t really help your case.

Okay, I know there are plenty more (and I’m interested to hear the ones that really drive you up a wall), but it’s getting late and I’ve probably bored you enough as it is. I might pick this topic up another day. I have a lot of fun, as a layperson, looking at how we use (and misuse) language.

*There is, of course, a proper, completely non-superfluous, time to use “that.”

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