Mistake of the Month—Unnecessary Modifiers

by • August 27, 2013

As Mark Twain once wrote, “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.”

Unnecessary modifiers make your writing weak and bloated, burying your message in a deluge of quites and rathers. These modifiers add no value to the sentences in which they appear. The first step to fixing the problem is identifying the filler words in your writing.

These words, also called intensifiers or qualifiers, are almost always adverbs. Here’s a list of the most commonly abused modifiers:

  • Actually
  • Really
  • Basically
  • Probably
  • Very
  • Definitely
  • Somewhat
  • Kind of
  • Extremely
  • Practically

So why are they so bad? We use these words constantly, peppering our everyday speech with them so often that they cease to have any meaning, becoming transparent. In written communication, these modifiers take up valuable space. In a world where readers’ attention spans are growing shorter by the day, getting to the point as quickly and concisely as possible is essential. For additional tips on making your writing more concise, check out the always-helpful Purdue Online Writing Lab.

Beyond trimming the fat from your writing, “weasel” words like somewhat andkind of dilute your message. That’s great if you’re trying to spare a friend’s feelings—“Your one-man mariachi band kind of needs some work, Steve”—but not if you’re trying to make a strong point in business or academic writing. Don’t equivocate; get straight to the point and make it without hedging.

The best and easiest way to get rid of unnecessary modifiers is not to use them in the first place. However, if your existing work needs to be pared down, read each line and evaluate it for wordiness. More often than not, your sentences will be just fine without these modifiers. Unfortunately, you’ll need to approach them on a case-by-case basis, since sometimes the modifiers do change the meaning of your sentence. Let’s take a look as some examples:

Example: It was a very hot day in Albuquerque.

In this example, the word very does indicate an increased degree of heat, but is the sentence “It was a hot day in Albuquerque,” truly have a significantly different meaning? It can safely be cut.

Example: She was actually a robot.

In the sentence above, actually indicates that her identity as a robot is something of a surprise. Keep it.

Example: We’re really going to regret this in the morning.

Here, really is used as an intensifier, showing the degree to which they’re going to regret whatever it is. However, “We’re going to regret this in the morning” means the same thing. Cut it.

Example: I am definitely going to take a vacation this Christmas.

The word definitely adds nothing of value to this sentence—“I am definitely going” and “I am going” mean the same thing—but depending on the tone of the piece, it may be appropriate to leave in.

When trying to capture a character’s voice in fiction or in writing a casual email, feel free to modify away. However, more formal settings require more precise language. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Writing Center has a great primer on how to tighten up your writing.

Which of these unnecessary modifiers to you use most often in your writing? Get out your red pen and be ruthless!

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