Here are three words you can clear out of your writing.
Word #1: Really
No, really. Take a look where this word might show up and clunk up a sentence:
It’s really important that you sign up for this.
This is a really valuable product.
You have to check this out – it’s really interesting.
I’m specifically talking about instances where really is an intensifier. In grammar, an intensifier is like a modifier, only better, and its job is… well, to intensify the emotional context of words like “important” or “valuable” or “interesting.”
But an intensifier actually adds no particular contribution or value. Take it out, and the whole sentence still works just fine, thank you very much.
The problem with really is that it’s supposed to enhance the word it’s modifying and amplify its meaning. But really has become so common that it doesn’t actually make us think more of the item in question. It makes us think less of it.
Watch what happens here:
Sign up. It’s important.
This is valuable.
All those words have weight and heft when they stand on their own. But add really to them, and it sounds like you’re trying hard to convince someone that you mean it.
“This is interesting.”
“No, it’s really interesting.”
Unless your reader has some reason to doubt your statement of the facts, really is unnecessary – AND it gives your reader the impression that you don’t believe your own words. Not really.
Word #2: Very
Really and very suffer from similar maladies; they’ve become so common that their original purpose has been flipped in the opposite direction.
It’s uncommon for us to say a house was big. We say it was very big.
We do this automatically, without thinking, and so much so that the word very doesn’t even register in our brains. It’s not as if we think big and by adding very we think even bigger.
We hear very big and we think big. We stay at the same level of perception, without anything being added to our mental image.
Very sweet. Very tall. Very nice. Very interesting.
It carries far more power to drop the word very and allow the word it intensified to stand alone.
The man entered the room. He was very large.
When we read this sentence, we get the impression that the man is fat. That’s usually what we mean when we say someone is very large. But when we simply say:
The man entered the room. He was large.
Now we have the impression of the man’s actual size. Maybe he’s fat, or maybe he’s broad and tall. Either way, there’s a lot of him. He is large. (And probably intimidating too!)
Word #3: Totally
Totally means ‘in total.’ As in, the sum of all. The whole. The entire shebang, completely. Like this:
Are all the boxes here? Totally.
That’s an old-fashioned version, but it still works for emotions:
Can I confide in you? Totally.
You can tell me the sum of all your confidences. Hold nothing back. I’m prepared to listen to the entire shebang of what you have to say.
The problem is that in common language (probably thanks to the explosion of Valley Girl talk in the ‘80s) totally became a placeholder word, modifying that which does not need modification.
Example: I was totally shocked.
Being shocked implies totality. You’re either shocked or you aren’t. Your ears can’t go into shock while your leg stays casual about it all. Your entire body and mind go into shock. That’s what shock means.
Totally, here, is redundant.
Here’s another example: This is a totally great price.
It’s great or it isn’t. A price is about as totaled as you can get – so the extra word serves no purpose.
Take it away. Take all three of these words – really, very, totally – away. And your copy will suddenly stand a bit taller, ring a touch prouder and come off like it was written by a pro.
Have any more unnecessary words to add to the pile? Bring them on in the comments!