01 December 2013

Professional Tips: Empty Words

by Leigh Lundin

As I grew more proficient at writing and heeded advice not to be overly wordy, especially with modifiers, I began to notice a few words that could be deleted, changing the sentence's meaning little or none at all. Pardon these exaggerated examples:
I certainly somewhat quite like M&Ms, mostly just the red ones.
Translation: I like red M&Ms.
She was very upset that her car somehow couldn't get any traction.
Translation: She was upset her car couldn't get traction.
Somehow they ambled about, very much as if cows, dumb as ever, could ever think.
Translation: The cows ambled dumbly, not as if they could think.
Empty Words

I began to think of these as 'empty words', hollow modifiers with little meaning. Granted, 'very' and 'really' act as intensives, but how useful are they? That question "How useful" is a key that can be applied to any modifier, but for 'empty words', the answer is often: "not at all."

If you say, "He buttered a certain slice of toast," does its particularity matter to the reader? If the answer's no, then the word does nothing but consume space and time– it only slows the story.

As I worked, I compiled a list of empty words and added to it adverbs of marginal utility.

Empty Words


The word 'that' is a special case. The word can be used as an adverb, a pronoun, a determiner, and a conjunction. We're primarily interested in the conjunction, but the adverb is worth a glance:

Adverb form: Jackson wasn't that drunk.
Conjunction: She said that she was sick.

Inspect the adverbial form of 'that' with an eye toward modifying. Use the conjunction only for clarity to set off confusing clauses, but otherwise avoid it. Deleting 'that' in the second sentence doesn't change the meaning at all.

Fat Words

Not long ago, I came across a list of 'fat words', sort of weasel words used as 'grey noise' in conversations, e.g: "Generally, I don't believe in politics and often I almost nearly always refuse to discuss it."

Many words in these lists can be used legitimately, but they often find themselves employed in writing or dialogue where they add dead weight to stories and drag them to a crawl. I added the word 'hopefully' to the existing list as another common 'filler'.

Be wary of other kinds of padding such as big in size or red in color. Santa is simply big and red.

Fat Words


It's difficult to write this article without using the words I complain about! What are your most annoying empty words and fat phrases?

The ƒ Word

One obvious word doesn't appear on these lists. More often than not, swear words are part of conversational 'grey noise'. But they're sometimes used as intensives, and the way they're used can reveal character– or lack of character.

I've long wanted to use a conversation from long ago, but I haven't come across the right story for it. I won't confess which line I spoke in the conversation that went like this:

"I ƒ-ing missed you."
"And vice versa!"


  1. Leigh, here in New York, "f-ing" is frequently used as an adverb. Also as an adjective, for emphasis, as in "It's four-f-ing-thirty in the morning!"

    When I got a second chance to tighten up my three novels for the e-book editions, I was surprised at how often I used "a little." I took out as many as I could. BTW, y'all, DEATH WILL EXTEND YOUR VACATION is free on Amazon (for Kindles and Kindle apps on tablets and smartphones) till Tuesday.

  2. Back in college my freshman English teacher took the strict view that the word "that" should never be used anywhere. And Frederic Dannay, writing as Ellery Queen, opined that the phrase "shrugged your shoulders" should never be used since there is no part of the human body that can be shrugged EXCEPT the shoulders. (Having said this, the careful reader will note that half way through The French Powder Mystery Ellery does, indeed, shrug his shoulders. All of which points out that it is important to know the words that should be avoided so that when you do NOT avoid them it is a conscious decision!

  3. Leigh, ‘empty’ words add baggage to a story. It may increase word count, but slows a story down, making it less interesting to read. I write as tight as possible, or at least I try to.
    As for the f word, I think it can add intensity under the right circumstance. If used too often it becomes annoying, boring and makes me think the writer is lazy.

  4. For many people, the "f" word is their chief adjective and adverb, sometimes in pursuit of using it as a noun and verb, but mostly because it's so utilitarian. And, in moments of extreme pain, nothing else quite works as well. But I agree, too much and it's just laziness. Even in the pen, the newcomers, every other word is "f", but the old-timers... rarely. Only to add, as Vicki said, "intensity under the right circumstances."

  5. Liz and Dale, those are good additions to our list.

    Vicky, exactly right. A writer has to choose and use carefully.

    Eve, that's an interesting observation. I imagine the more posturing, the more ƒiing swearing.

  6. Leigh:

    Generally speaking, I very much agree with roughly most of what you pointed out. However, to be perfectly frank with you, I believe there are certain occasions, certainly—perhaps even unquestionably, though not necessarily over-frequently—on which I should beg to differ.

    But, then again, who the f—‘s keeping score?

    Translation: “Great post, Leigh!”


  7. Dixon: LOL!!! (Woops, another over-used "word"!) :-) (Ack! An over-used emoticon!)

    I will quit now. Apparently my brain is shriveled and won't come up with anything original enough to convey my true enjoyment of all this. I smile, I wave, I go away now.

  8. Dixon! (laughing) Way to go!

    Anon, thank you. I know how you feel, generally.


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