How To Be More Expressive – Useless Modifiers and Throw Away Words

Useless Modifiers

Hablot Knight Browne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There was a time when people communicated in thoughtful, beautiful and expressive ways. They made use of thousands of words in the English language. Travel back with me 158 years.

As the scene opens the narrator describes the mood.

...we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

This of course is the opening of Charles Dickens a Tale of Two Cities, describing life in 1775. Since a Tale of Two Cities was written, humanity has progressed and created a world that people of Dickens time would find indescribable.  Think of all we take for granted today that didn’t exist then.

  • Not just horseless carriages, but an infrastructure that moves us across states or countries in hours not days.
  • Not just man powered flight, but plans to visit other planets.
  • Not just a better system for delivering correspondence but the ability to have face to face communication with any other human being instantaneously.

And yet, with all of these incredible inventions and new words to go with them we seem to be losing our ability to communicate in a clear and expressive manner as Jimmy Kimmel so masterfully demonstrates in this montage from the Bachelorette.

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Of all the new experiences enjoyed by these young people, They used one word to describe them all.


What has happened to us?  How is it that we have access to more knowledge, more experiences and more information than any generation, but we find ourselves unable express ourselves in meaningful ways.

I like the way Poet Taylor Mali puts it in his poem It’s Like, Whatever, You Know”

And so actually our disarticulation . . . ness
is just a clever sort of . . . thing
to disguise the fact that we’ve become
the most aggressively inarticulate generation
to come along since . . .
you know, a long, long time ago!

Why are we struggling to express ourselves?

We find ourselves in a swamp of useless modifiers, under stated or misstated declarations and lack or originality in how we arrange our words.  We find ourselves lacking expressiveness.  What do we do about it?  

Let’s dive in and wrestle with the swamp monsters that are keeping us bogged down in a life of boring speech so when we’re done, we’ll have the tools to be well spoken, expressive and a master of speech and conversation.

Useless Modifiers

Have you ever suddenly become aware of a habit or manner you didn’t know you had? If you’ve ever played poker, you know what I’m talking about. Poker players call these little habits “tells”. They’re little unconscious clues we send out. Keen observers pick them up, but we may be unaware of them

Using Useless Modifiers are sort of like tells in that they’re often unconscious, other people notice them and they hurt our game.

A Lesson in Modifiers

Modifiers are little helper words and phrases in the English language that are supposed to assist the person listening get a better understanding of what you’re trying to say.

For example, the website Grammar Bytes   puts it like this.

Stephen dropped his fork.

Now read what several well placed modifiers can do:

Poor Stephen, who just wanted a quick meal to get through his three-hour biology lab, quickly dropped his fork on the cafeteria tray, gagging with disgust as a tarantula wiggled out of his cheese omelet, a sight requiring a year of therapy before Stephen could eat eggs again.

Do you hear the difference?  Stephan becomes Poor Stephen

And a slew of words and phrases that modify Stephen dropping his fork come into play

  • To get through his three-hour biology lab,
  • Quickly
  • On the cafeteria tray

So these modifiers help out story by giving us a better idea of what’s going on.

I’m not trying to make this an English lesson so we won’t spend any more time on modifiers, but I wanted you to know what they are so you can understand when they go wrong..

When Modifiers Go Wrong

When modifiers go wrong they don’t help give us any more information about what’s really happening so they don’t add value to the conversation. The problem we have, especially here in the US, is we’ve stacked our everyday language so full of these modifiers, we hardly realize we aren’t communicating.

I have to confess, I’m guilty of doing it myself. I fall victim to using useless modifiers all the time.

  • I had an amazing trip
  • I had an awesome time
  • That was an interesting movie

That last one is really tricky because so many people use interesting as a nice to say “bad”. Be aware of the context someone is using.

Want  more examples of useless words?

In the book How To Wow Frances Cole Jones shares Fifteen Words that Say Nothing at All. Here are a few from the book.

  • Boring
  • Cool
  • Fun
  • Good or Great
  • Incredible

We’ve watered down our language to such a degree we describe the events of our day in ways that don’t tell the person we’re talking to what our experience is really like.  We’ve gone from A Tale of Two Cities to useless modifiers in about 160 years.  What will life be like in 2177? Will we be living in a world of cave dwellers who communicate emotion through a series of grunts, growls and grins or are there some things we can do right now that will improve our communication?

What To Do About Useless Modifiers

Become aware of useless language in your writing

The Website  has a post focusing on the worst offenders Words like

Really / Very   – words “very” or “really” (or any intensifier) are ways of increasing the value of a word without adding anything descriptive. Mark Twain once said:

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ”  ~Mark Twain

Just – I’m guilty of using just.  Just is a way to softening your speech.  “I just wanted to express my condolences”. Just automatically subordinates you and your stance on a topic. It’s a position of unworthiness. Plus, it’s unneeded; eliminate it.  I just wanted to express my condolences can be conveyed as “My condolences. I’m sorry for your loss”

Amazing / Awesome 

Amazing means “causing great wonder or surprise”

Awesome means “extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.”

Here’s why not to use them according to

  1. They tell, they don’t show. that is: telling the people how they should feel  instead of actually describing it in a way in order to convey that emotion.
  2. These words are overused. 

Suddenly – the sentence should jar the reader without having to tell her. Don’t say “suddenly, this or suddenly that” instead bring your audience into the suspense. Make them experience it.

Started- Started slows down the action.  Which has more impact?

  • She started dancing
  • She danced.

In order to do the action you had to start it so started isn’t needed

Here are a few more to be aware of.

Crutch Words

  • Actually,
  • Basically
  • Honestly,
  • Like
  • Obviously
  • Literally
  • SO

And let’s not forget weasel words such as

  • Kind of / sort of
  • Should
Why do we need to pay attention to these words in our writing?

Because writing is thought put to paper. When you pay attention to writing, you are more aware of the thought process needed to construct language.

Speaking, whether it’s from a stage, on a podcast , in a video, a webinar or a live stream, comes from our thinking. The language we use in our writing influences our speech. We become aware useless words through writing so we can be more conscious of them in our speaking.

Keep an Expression Journal

I learned this idea from Arthur Plotnik in his book The Elements of Expression: putting thoughts into words  When you hear someone phrase something in an interesting, exciting or humorous manner, take the time to record it. It doesn’t matter if it’s recorded in physical notebook or an app on your phone just make sure you get it.

Try to capture the phrase, the date and who said it. Plotnik says giving credit is important when you can do it. It’s not always possible to cite your source, but it’s good practice. No one wants their saying ripped off.

Also use your expression journal to record new vocabulary words. We have dozens or hundreds of conversations everyday. Start paying attention to what people say. You may just run across some words you didn’t know.

I started doing this a few weeks ago and I was surprised by how many great expressions are out there. Here are a few I’ve captured on my smart phone

  • Faster than a hummingbird on Crack – Heard on Global Speechwriter FM
  • The colors are so real you can almost taste them
  • Appeared suddenly, like steam from a tea kettle – From the 2105 movie “The man from U.N.C.L.E.

As you become aware of the different ways people express themselves, you aren’t as reliant on useless modifiers like amazing, good, and interesting. You realize the English language is alive and available for you to create something new.

Quote from the Show:

80% of success is showing up.  ~ Woody Allen

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