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.


What words do you overuse?

We have approximately one million unique words in the English language. The number varies, depending on which expert you ask. The numbers for how many of those words we  use also vary wildly, but they all come out to fewer than 10 percent. Of course, we have the words we understand and the words we speak or write. Our language is full of delightful words that I understand but never employ, words like famished, harbinger, porcelain, and scurrilous.

I find that like most people, I’m guilty of using the same words over and over. For example, “amazing” comes out of my mouth at least 20 times a day. Surely everything is not amazing. But I hear the word all around me, so I use it. I go for the excessive word. I’m not just hungry, I’m starving. I’m not just cold, I’m freezing.

We often mimic what our favorite TV characters say. “I know. Right?” “Seriously.” “Seriously?” We also imitate our friends and family, copying their favorite expressions and their favorite curses. That’s not a terrible thing. Using the same words helps us communicate. BUT if we’re writers, we need to go beyond repeating the same old words. I’m not saying we need to start writing in such a way that readers won’t understand what we’re talking about. God forbid. But we do need to stretch a bit, to vary our language and find those words that are the best fit for the circumstances.

I’m in the midst of fine-tuning my new novel. Last week, I found a tool that helped me identify words that I use excessively. It’s amazing. Oops, I said amazing again. How about ingenious? In Microsoft Word, go to the edit menu and click on replace. In the blank that says “find,” insert the word you’re looking for. In the “replace” blank, type ^&. Now click on “replace all.” It will give you a number without changing anything in your document. Magic, right?

In my manuscript, I found 94 uses of “really.” I wrote “car” 150 times and “phone” 115. I used “freakin’ far too many times and employed f— more than I like. My character speaks of “crying” or “tears” 74 times. I used “so” more than 400 times. Obviously I have some work to do.

We all have our pet words. Among the most overused are “amazing,” “awesome,” “great,” “quite,” “so,” and “then.” Many are qualifiers like “really” or “very” that can be deleted without hurting a thing. Others are lazy words, not quite the right word but the one that comes to mind first. When I write freezing, is it truly freezing? Are things turning to ice, or is it just cold? Is it chilly, nippy, crisp, biting, or piercing? Am I shivering? Do I have goose bumps? Are my feet going numb? Am I truly starving, as in going to die for lack of food, or did I just miss breakfast?

When you’re writing a first draft and the words are flowing, don’t stop to worry about making each word perfect and unique. If you’re not sure of the right word, mark it and keep going. But when the rush of words slows, go back and reconsider your words. Is there a better word, a more accurate word, a more colorful word, a more powerful word?

Remember what Mark Twain said. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

If you must, consult a thesaurus, a book that gives you words that mean pretty much the same thing. I’ve got my yellowed old Roget’s Thesaurus paperback, but I’m finding it easier to consult thesaurus.com online. Plug in a word and see what you get. But don’t use a word if you don’t know what it means and always consider whether you need that word at all. Seriously.

Now go write.