5 useless words you can almost always delete

Declutter your copy and tighten up sentences by stripping out the likes of ‘different,’ ‘that’ and ‘currently.’

5 words you can always delete

Editor’s note: We are re-running the top stories of 2020 as part of our year-end countdown.

Winnowing out wasteful words might be an editor’s most sacred task.

Whether you call them “dead wood,” “filler,” “fluff” or “clutter,” they’re the junk you almost never need in a sentence. These “couch potato words” occupy space, trip tongues and take readers down a long, winding path when a short, straight one would do.

Whenever you edit copy, feel free to discard these bits of grammatical gunk and literary lint.

1. Different

Writers often use “different” to indicate variety, but it’s not always necessary. Consider these examples:

  • We have many different types of soup. → We have many types of soup.
  • Each waiter serves a different segment of the restaurant. → Each waiter serves a segment of the restaurant.
  • You have several different options for dinner. → You have options for dinner.

In the sentences above, “types,” “segment” and “options” each imply difference, which makes “different” unnecessary. Removing “different” tightens up each sentence, and it prevents redundancy.

2. That

“That” rolls off the tongue when you speak, but it clutters your written sentences. Editing tip: CTRL+F your document for “that,” and cut it anywhere you can without convoluting your prose. Read these sentences aloud:

  • Can you believe that she doesn’t want to come with us? → Can you believe she doesn’t want to come with us?
  • I know that you don’t want this. → I know you don’t want this.
  • She decided that she’d go after all. → She decided she’d go after all.

3. Currently

It feels necessary, I know. You feel like you have to say, “I currently work at Acme Company,” but you don’t. “I work at Acme Company” means the same thing.

In rare cases, “currently” may help clarify what is now versus another time—but most of the time, a simple present-tense verb does the trick.

  • She’s currently dating Taylor, but she was married to Jamie before. → She’s dating Taylor, but she was married to Jamie before.
  • I’m currently between jobs. → I’m between jobs.
  • Currently, you have two options for student loans. → You have two options for student loans.

4. Certain, specific or particular

Cutting these words will strengthen a sentence, but replacing them with a more precise modifier will do even better.

  • A specific location → a location → a location to be named by your instructor
  • A certain amount → an amount→ a large amount
  • Your particular problems → your problems → your unusual problems

5. Very, really, totally (any emphasizing adverb)

Instead of adding a boring adverb to emphasize the greatness of an adjective or verb—such as “really big” or “greatly appreciate”—use a stronger adjective or verb on its own.

Here are a few examples and alternatives:

  • Very big → Huge, gigantic, enormous, prodigious
  • Really want → desire, crave, covet, yearn for
  • Extremely tall → giant, towering, soaring, altitudinous
  • Highly likely → probable, feasible, expected, anticipated
  • Totally surprised → astonished, dumbfounded, flabbergasted, nonplussed
  • Greatly appreciated → applauded, relished, treasured, extolled
  • Truly believe → affirm, conclude, suppose, insist

Over to you, readers. Which words do you send straight to the chopping block? Leave your recommendations in the comments, please.

A version of this article was originally published by Notes Newsletter.


7 Responses to “5 useless words you can almost always delete”

    Bill Spaniel says:

    Good article. I would add “free gift,” which is redundant. A “gift” is free by definition. Of course this is not going to happen as advertisers and promoters tout “free gifts” as an incentive to buy something. But if you have to buy an time in order to receive another item, the second item is not free. You purchased it as part of the price of the original item.

    Chris Biddle says:

    Great list of useless words. I’ve got another for you – using “actively” as a redundant adverb in front of active verbs. It’s everywhere and it’s endlessly irritating. Examples:

    Police are actively investigating the murder. Better: Police are investigating the murder.

    The town council is actively looking into several options to fund its new sewage treatment plant. Better: The town council is looking into…..

    Let’s throw actively into that new sewage treatment plant!

    Andrea Sipos says:

    Ha! I was just wondering what ACTIVELY could be replaced and the first word that came to mind was CURRENTLY which is already on the list. Probably best to leave out both.

    Veronica Jarski says:

    Great article! I’m sharing it with some writers I know. : )

    My addition to the list: “When it comes to”

    Yikes. This phrase is not needed. At all.

    Ugh: “When it comes to writing, I lean toward short sentences.”
    Ahh: “When writing, I lean toward short sentences.”

    Ugh: “When it comes to watching sci-fi programs, I like The Expanse best.”
    Ahh: “I like The Expanse best of all sci-fi programs.”

    I could’ve rewritten that last sentence three more times, but I made my point. After all, when it comes to-Oh, no. Let’s not say that phrase again. : )

    yaqoob says:

    When we’re cool about it, we often excuse ourselves by saying I’m just kidding, oh, that doesn’t really mean that. These are the words that Jesus warned us about our useless words that He could open the door to the powers that be.

    chase says:

    “Just” (I “just” wanted to say), “First …..” (first introduced him to … first invented) … and, ugh, “in” (we can assist you in planning your next purchase … instead of “we can help you plan your next purchase”). “In” has become a problem. Keep an eye out for it. You’ll see it everywhere.

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