I was pleased to see an op-ed in the New York Times a few weeks ago that addressed weak language construction. That is, using the phrase “I feel like” to precede stating an opinion, belief, preference, et cetera. The writer made the essay more political than I would have liked; I was hoping for an in-depth discussion of how we all use qualifiers and word clutter when we speak and write.
I have been battling against qualifiers and word clutter for, literally, decades. And yes, I used the word literally correctly. If I had written, “I’ve been battling for like literally forever,” I would have deserved two, maybe three, slaps on the wrist.
First slap is for the use of like. That word should be reserved for either preference—“I like ice cream”—or for comparisons—“His voice was like sandpaper on glass.” It is not appropriate in descriptions—“His frown was like so sad”—or simple statements—“He was like crying” or as an odd substitute for said: “He was like ‘I don’t know what to do.’”
Second slap for wrongly using literally. I haven’t been alive forever. There is nothing I could have been doing literally forever.
And perhaps a third slap for using an adverb, which literally is. A strong verb does not need the help of a vague adverb. “She ambled” gives us a clear picture of a woman’s pace; “She walked slowly” is dull. An ordinary verb, with an accepted meaning, also doesn’t need help. “She smiled happily” doesn’t tell us anything more than “She smiled” does. If, however, she has a thin, tight-lipped smile, more description would be helpful because that probably is not a happy smile. A well-placed adverb, in fact, can be a delight. In Dorothy Sayers’s Strong Poison, her aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey speaks to a woman who is in prison, accused of murder and facing the death penalty. He tells her with his typical insouciance that he will “call again.” Her response: “I will give the footman orders to admit you,” said the prisoner, gravely; “you will always find me at home.” I love the dark humor, and that gravely is just terrific.
And there I deserve another wrist slap, for the use of just. It’s not a bad word, but along with words like quite and rather and so and very and little, it’s a qualifier, a word that adds nothing to a sentence. In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White call qualifiers “the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.” For example, this is not a good sentence: “He went for a little walk, just so he could see the neighborhood and the pretty houses, which he thought were rather quaint.” I think this is better: “He ambled through the neighborhood, admiring the tidy homes and well-kept gardens, reminiscent of villages in the English countryside.”
Another slap on the wrist for “I think.” Yes, as the writer of the op-ed I referenced above points out, when stating an opinion as opposed to a fact, a writer or speaker might prefer to begin with I think, or I believe, or I feel. Poor writing results when we use such words when we don’t need to. In the previous paragraph, the second sentence about the man’s walk is better than the first. The “I think” acts as a qualifier, weakening my statement. A child won’t be impressed by a parent’s scolding if he says, “I feel that hitting other people is wrong.”
As for word clutter, William Zinsser had this to say in his indispensable On Writing Well: “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.” The entire book is this good, but I can’t quote the entire book. Go read it yourself. But I will quote some more because I can’t resist:
Don’t inflate what needs no inflating: “with the possible exception of” (except), “due to the fact that” (because), “He totally lacked the ability to” (he couldn’t), “until such time as” (until), “for the purpose of” (for).
When we’re having casual conversations with family, friends, coworkers, a stranger on the bus, most of us won’t worry about qualifiers and word clutter. When it counts, though, when we have something important to say, we all need to ferret out the weak language, the unnecessary words, the empty phrases, so that our writing is clear, strong, and compelling.