Watch out for sneaky little words that say nothing

Useless little words tick me off, as do words that are used incorrectly. I know, most people have bigger problems to worry about, but I want to look at some words we tend to put in the strangest places. I’m talking about to do and to have, and their variations.

Consider: “I do the dishes.” Do what to them? Do them as in have sex? Hard to get it on with a dinner plate. Some people even do them up. No. We wash the dishes, we dry the dishes, and we put them away. “Do” is so vague. How about throw the dishes? Fill the dishes? Scrub the dishes? Scour? Scrape? Soap? There are so many other words that actually do some work. But what does do tell us? I suppose do sums up the whole job. We take them off the table, empty the leftovers into the trash, clean them and put them away. The whole job.

Likewise, we do the laundry. We get our hair done, and people order steaks well done. Criminals do time.

Busy little verb, isn’t it? Do: To bring to pass, to perform, to execute, to make it happen. Do is a great word. When you’re speaking in the voice of a character, feel free to use “do” just like real people. “Let’s just do up these dishes.” But in other writing, stop and think: Is do the right word, or would another, more specific verb give that sentence more color and power?

Then there’s have. It has a lot of legitimate uses, including: to hold or maintain in one’s possession (I have five dollars), to hold or contain as part of the whole (the car has an automatic transmission), or to feel an obligation in regard to something (we have to pay our taxes). We use it as a helping verb to change tense with other verbs. “I have worked hard today.” “I have been to France.”

But what about when we say “I had a pizza”? What, did you keep it in your sock drawer? Did you have a pizza and someone took it away? No, you’re probably saying you ordered a pizza at a restaurant and then you ate it. Devoured it. Gobbled it. Wolfed it down. Shared it with your friends.

We have all kinds of weird phrases including the word have and its cousins: had better, have it in for, have done. What the heck do these things really mean? Again, if you’re projecting the voice of a character or a colorful narrator, use these words however you please. Have at it. But otherwise, think about it. Might there be another word with more power?

We’re guilty with other words, too. Like “get.” We “get” all kinds of things that we don’t actually “get.” And “make.” We “make chicken” for dinner. No, we cook it. And don’t get me started on all the ways we use is, was, and were when other words would work better.

We have so many great words. If you can’t think of the right word in your first draft, mark it and keep writing. Later, go back and find that word. Don’t settle for the lazy choice.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Now go write.

I feel sorry for anyone trying to learn the English language.

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