Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
Do you want to imply that a task or obstruction is unimportant, minor, or easily overcome? The English language provides a nice collection
of words for this purpose, all with subtle nuances. Here are a few options, in alphabetical order. (Brief definitions are paraphrased
from Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition, 1993. Examples and exposition are mine alone.)
- Immaterial: Of no
substantial consequence. You can use immaterial to say that something is not relevant or that the task is very easy indeed.
Too small to be perceived. You can use inappreciable to say that a task is not daunting or that the quantity of something is niggling.
Of no significance. You can use inconsequential to say that the task is all but mindless, or that the effect (perhaps on performance)
is not noticeable and only slightly negative.
- Insignificant: Not worth considering. You can use insignificant to say that the task
won’t take long or that the effect (perhaps on performance) is not meaningful.
- Just: Barely, or only and simply. Notice that “just”
has slightly negative connotations, so if you say, “just press OK” you are saying that it’s simple and a one-step operation, and you
are implying that without your guidance, your reader would never have figured out to press OK on his own. You can use just to say
that something is barely true. In general, I recommend that you avoid using just except when you are using it to mean “just in case,”
that something is righteous and fair, or that something is lined up properly with another thing.
- Minor: Small, inferior in importance
(comparative), not serious. You can use minor to say that the task is brief and not difficult, or that the subject at hand is less
important than another subject under discussion, or that the effect (perhaps on performance) is not as bad or good as you might expect.
So unimportant as to warrant little or no attention. You can use negligible to say that the task won’t take very long or very much
brainpower, or that the effect (perhaps on performance) is nearly imperceptible.
- Only: A single fact or instance and nothing more.
You can use only to isolate something as the sole object, or to help a noun seem less important. Notice that only has slightly negative
connotations, so when you say “it’s only Windows’ newest feature,” you are implying that you are not impressed (using sarcasm). “It’s
Windows only new feature” means that there’s but one new feature in this version. “Only it’s Windows’ new feature” means that you
are surprised to find it in Windows.
- Paltry: Small, inferior, trashy. Notice that paltry has strongly negative connotations. Use paltry
when you want to say that something is so small or meaningless that it’s pathetic.
- Simple (see also simply): Of humble origin, free
of secondary complications. You can use simple to say that something is not complex, or to imply that it is not as intriguing as a
more complex other thing.
- Simply (see also simple): Without ambiguity. Notice that simply does not mean “all you’ve got to do is…”.
You can use simply to amplify intensity (simply the best), but unless you want your reader to perform a function in a naïve way, don’t
say “simply add a line of code.” (I get images of drooling glassy-eyed programmers typing with thumbs alone when I read sentences
- Slight: Lacking in strength or substance. You can use slight to show that there’s a little work involved but not an intimidating
amount, or that the effect on performance (for example) is measurable but not dire.
- Small: Having little size or importance. You can
use small to imply that something won’t take very long, or has a tiny impact on something else, like performance or price.
Lacking in significance or solid worth. You can use trifling to imply that something is frivolous and not meaningful. Use trifling
if you want to impugn the merits of whatever you’re talking about because trifling has an unmitigated negative connotation. You can
use trifling if you are being off-hand and are saying that something won’t take very long or use many brain cells, but make sure that
the tone of your work accommodates such usage.
- Trivial: Commonplace, of little worth or importance. Notice that trivial does NOT mean
a small amount of work. Trivial has negative connotations (“the impact was trivial” means that there was an impact, a negative one,
and the impact was small), and should be reserved for negative expressions. Please don’t say that the code was trivial, unless you
mean to imply that any third grader could have written it, it’s ugly, and it doesn’t do much, anyway.
- Unimportant: Not of significant
worth or consequence. You can use unimportant to say that something doesn’t need your reader’s attention, but you can’t use it to
say that something won’t take very long.
- Unportentous: Not eliciting amazement, not serious. You can use unportentous to mean that
something doesn’t bode ill for your project or that it is not complex.
- Unpretentious: Free from ostentation or affectation. You can
use unpretentious to mean “simple” if you want a more complex word, but it also implies that whatever it is, it came by its simplicity
I want you to notice that I crafted additional ways of saying that something is a picayune amount of work into my
definitions. See how unintimidating it is to use variety? Even though my subject was petty, each illustration was more clarifying
than just saying that it’s only trivial.