Well, um, actually, you know, it’s literally like this

I’ve been noticing bad habits snaking into my vocabulary. Not just my speech, but my writing! Certain words and phrases sound like fingernails on a chalkboard. If only they wouldn’t come out in the first place! The phrases “you know” and “I mean” are tops on my list, along with the word “actually.”

I’m reminded of a newsletter Marcia Yudkin wrote a couple of years ago, which has stuck in my memory. I republish it here in full.

The Marketing Minute
brought to you every Wednesday by Marcia Yudkin
Marketing Consultant, Author, Speaker
©Marcia Yudkin

Luckily there isn't a Committee to Defend the Adverb.  Because today, readers, I implore you:  Whenever you see one in your prose, pull it over to the side and grill it about whether or not it has a legitimate reason to be there.  If not, hurl it into the bushes.  Stamp it into oblivion.

Worst offenders:

Intensifiers, like “really,” “very,” “extremely.” Always be suspicious of these. You inserted them to rev up your meaning, but to readers they have the opposite effect. Out!

“Actually” or “in fact.” If I'd said “to readers they actually have the opposite effect,” would I have changed my point?  No.  Out!

“Literally.” Almost always this word deserves squelching. To decide, apply the dictionary meaning to the next word.  Is it true?  “We literally exploded in laughter.” You did not explode.  Out!

Bad-habit adverbs. The chaplain at a college where I once taught inserted “somehow” into every other sentence to express perplexity at the twists and turns of life. Excise such distracting mannerisms from your writing, too.

If a word does nothing or mucks up your point… Out!

Where do you stand with these words?

It's easy for me to delete these adverbs from my clients' statements and bios, but much harder to remove from my own text and, to be more exact, my speech. I know, however, that I’ll deliver a more powerful message with more precise writing and precise speaking.

You can do this, too. Practice eliminating these words in your blog posts, your biography and your statement.

I need to warn you, though. Once you become aware of unnecessary words and phrases, I’m afraid that you, too, will begin hearing the sound of nails scratching the chalkboard each time someone else (not you!) utters them.

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15 thoughts on “Well, um, actually, you know, it’s literally like this”

  1. the incorrect use of the word “Literally”….drives…..me……insane……
    thanks for sharing, very informative

  2. Well, actually, all of these “throw-away” phrases should be avoided like the plague, I must say.

    Enough of that. The era of texting has made brevity essential – a good thing for those of us who struggle at writing.

  3. “Literally” is one of my biggest pet peeves!

    I tend to use the word “basically” too much when I’m public speaking, even though I’m working on it. It’s tough to get rid of bad habits, even when you’re aware of them!

  4. Is that kind of like when people write in all capitals all the time? (haha)

    What’s up with the text on your blog today Alyson?

  5. Great Alyson! Now I’m nervous about writing ANYTHING! Tweeting is a perfect exercise for determining what’s essential in effective communication. In tweeting we prune, hone and remove extra words and modifiers. Such fun! Good challenge!
    Even on TV and radio, bad language use is the norm.

  6. Great post! It’s so hard to self monitor speech, but a worthwhile struggle. And even as I write, I can feel myself chafing to add unnecessary words.

    We had friends over one evening and I thought it was so funny to hear their 3 year old using the word “actually” – now I’m thinking this poor child will just have that much more ingrained habit to purge from her speech!

  7. Alyson B. Stanfield

    Glad to see everyone has a sense of humor!

    Stacey: “Basically” is another good one.

    Lauren: It looks like there’s a compatability issue b/t TypePad and IE right now. Good heavens! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Any way I can convince you to switch to Firefox?

    Liza: I KNOW. Writing isn’t usually the problem. I’m most fearful of what comes out of my mouth.

    Becky: My nieces and nephews say “actually” a lot. That will get your attention!

  8. add the words Honestly?(with the?) and Basically…
    “You Know” what “Really” bothers me about the great blog post? “I Mean” I “Actually” don’t like the CAP’S used through out the post, it “Literally” drove me nuts to be shouted at… “Basically” I would not have done that…”Honestly?” that’s one of the things I relate to ‘scratching the chalkboard’ when used…so once I submit this comment it will come up in CAP’S…Honestly? this was a great posted subject!

  9. I do use “in fact” and very occasionally “actually” when I am giving feedback on my online astronomy students’ homework. In those cases I am using “in fact” after a weaker statement such as, “No, gravitation doesn’t increase with distance. In fact it decreases with the square of increasing distance.” As for “actually,” I use that when I’m pissed that a student didn’t do the work. As in “You have to actually do the calculation…”

    In my case, I think I often tend to write very formally and with the use of an extensive vocabulary that not everyone shares. When I was a six year old reading my father’s pulp science fiction mags, I would often come across words I didn’t understand. I looked them up rather than complain about their use. Nowadays the opposite seems to be the fashion.

  10. You are reading my mind – I’ve fallen into the habit of sprinkling these words in both my speech and writing. I just spent 30 minutes editing my last post because I tend to write conversationally, which isn’t always good. That and I use hyphens liberally.

  11. I couldn’t agree more with everything that’s been said. I think words like “actually” and “basically” are sometimes used as verbal time-fillers or space-holders. But when you hear news reporters on prestigious national stations saying “you know” every ten words and prefacing every statement with “basically”, not to mention regularly using incorrect words or making grammatical errors, it’s hard to resist doing the same — it’s become part of our national speech pattern!

  12. This is a great post – so necessary and helpful. I appreciate the reminder to avoid “extremely” and “very.”
    I’d add that exclamation points are rarely necessary, and using multiple exclamation points is the written equivalent of teenage girls at the mall shrieking. Don’t do it. My public enemy number one, though, is misusing “it’s” and “its.”

  13. Oops. I’m a major offender. I think my future posts will halve in length.

    I will confess to another biggie whilst here; endlessly run-on sub-clauses. I always want to fit more into one sentence than will fit. I don’t know why, full stops are not rationed.

    p.s I have just read your post on recycling old posts. I think this qualifies as an eternally relevant topic.

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