Have you ever noticed that a lot of sentences start with “however,” “basically,” or “actually,” or that people use “sort of” or “kind of” a lot when they talk? Inappropriate frequency of nearly any word can lead to dull, lifeless writing.
Most repeated words fall into a category I like to call “Caveat Words” (see my earlier blog, Editorial Pet Peeves). Somehow, we think we are softening the blow or smoothing a transition, but in reality, we mask the true meaning of the sentence because these words carry weight.
“However” means “but,” “in whatever manner or way,” or “on the other hand.” When you say:
The Purple People Plotter worked great for the first half hour. However, it worked without supervision for the rest of the day.
What you are really saying is: The Purple People Plotter did NOT work without supervision for the first half hour and it did not work at all well for the unsupervised portion of the day.
“Basically” means “in a basic or primary manner.” So when you say:
“Basically, the job was easy.”
What you are really saying is: “In a basic manner, the job was easy.” What does this mean? (I don’t know.) You probably mean to say: for the most part, the job was easy. Reserve “basically” for basic things that can be done in a basic manner. (I had a philosophy professor who said that anytime a student prefaced remarks with “basically,” he assumed the student was guessing.)
Actually means “in an actual manner.” It’s a pretty odd word, really. So when someone says where you went for dinner last night and you say:
Actually, we went to La Scala.
What you are really saying is: “In an actual manner, we went to La Scala.” Again, I don’t know what this means. I suppose you mean to say “amazingly enough, we went to the important and impressive restaurant called La Scala.” In my interpretation, the adverb “amazingly” is appropriate because you DO mean “in an amazing way.” The assumption can be made that if you ate dinner at La Scala, you were actually there, so you probably don’t need to say it. It sure sounds funny when I point it out that way, doesn't it?
Literally means “in a literal manner” or it really and truly happened. So when someone says “we were literally flying,” I can only assume they were airborne. Sadly, literally has fallen into common usage to mean “virtually,” which is a perfectly good word, and should get more play when we make similes or metaphors about our experiences.
“Sort of” and “kind of” crop up all over the place. I had a boss once who used it so frequently that in a seven-minute formal presentation, I counted 37 uses. I suppose “sort of” and “kind of” are the adult version of the adolescent “like” or perhaps they are the more literate version of “um.” But these expressions carry meaning (colloquially, they mean “a little bit.” The dictionary leans toward “of a type”), so you want to use caution when you’re tossing them around.
There are many other words each individual writer overuses, probably for stylistic reasons. Mine is “that.” In the unedited version of this blog entry, I used it 19 times. The blog was only 522 words long, so nearly four percent of my words were identical. Yuck! Who wants to read, um, that???