We’ve all been guilty of using some of these words on occasion, yours truly included. So, here’s the naughty 20 list. (Did you catch my use of “So” in the previous sentence?)
Crutch words slip into sentences in order to give the speaker more time to think or to emphasize a statement. Over time, they become unconscious verbal tics. Most often, crutch words do not add meaning to a statement. “Actually” is the perfect example of a crutch word. It is meant to signify something that exists in reality, but it is more often used as a way to add punch to a statement (as in, “I actually have no idea”).
Um, Ah, Er, Uh
During an informal chit-chat with friends, an occasional “um” or “ah” is perfectly natural and offers the speaker a brief moment to formulate new thoughts. However, when frequently used, these crutch-mumbles make it difficult for the listener to retain the speaker’s point. In formal presentations, avoid these entirely if you want to come across as professional and prepared.
“Well, here are the results of the study.” If you’re presenting important information to colleagues, prefacing the meat of a sentence with a word like “well” diminishes the impact of whatever follows. When used in this way, this adverb is an example of a “hedge.” Just as botanical hedges soften the edges of a yard, linguistic hedges weaken the force of a statement.
Like “well,” “so” is a linguistic hedge that has gained popularity in recent years. “So, here’s what I’ve been thinking.” “So, as we see in this graphic …” “So, yeah, that’s kind of what I thought.”
At times, speakers purposefully use hedges like “so” for stylistic effect, perhaps to appear more down-to-earth in front of an audience. Such a tactic is fine in small doses. But, prefacing every sentence with this hedge signals to listeners that the speaker is nervous and unfamiliar with giving presentations. “So, that’s a great question. So, let me try to answer that. So, as I should have mentioned earlier, so is my crutch-word.”
This adverb should be used to describe an action that occurs in a strict sense. Often, however, it is used inversely to emphasize a hyperbolic or figurative statement: “I literally ran 300 miles today.” “Literally” is one of the most famously used crutch words in English. The next one, however, may surprise you.
“Look, that’s beside the point.” “Look, all I’m saying is …” “Look, there’s an epidemic of using “look” as a crutch-word.”
“Look” is the speaker’s invitation for the listener to “see” and “understand” the speaker’s point of view. But, is it necessary to that understanding? Not at all, and when used repeatedly, the listener might not want to understand.
Fantastic, Great, Awesome, Super
These adjectives tend to be on speakers’ semantic speed-dial whenever a compliment or descriptor is needed: “Great, that’s just so great.” “This is a fantastic proposal, just fantastic ideas; wouldn’t expect anything less from such fantastic people.”
When speakers gravitate toward any one of these (or other) adjectives to describe the world around them, it’s time to visit the thesaurus for a few peppery alternatives. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of mindlessly regurgitated language. Selecting unique adjectives demonstrates more original thinking.
This crutch word is used to assert authority or express incredulity, as in, “Honestly, I have no idea why he said that.” However, it very rarely adds honesty to a statement. The next crutch word is perhaps the most famous one out there.
“Seriously” has lost its gravitas with overuse. If someone is rushed to the hospital with massive internal bleeding after a car crash, the person is seriously injured. The person would have every right to say (if conscious), “I’m seriously about to die.” If, however, the speaker is “seriously about to die” after passing gas on the subway, she’ll have to live with the fact that she will continue to live, even as the odor reaches its apex.
“I’m totally up for anything right now.” “Einstein’s theory of relativity is totally relevant.” “This budget you prepared is totally impressive!”
Remove “totally” from the sentences above, and the speaker immediately gains more credibility and no longer sounds like a gum-smacking tween. “Totally” is yet another of the numerous adverbs that have become vapid with overuse. However, it’s not a crutch-word when it retains its full meaning, like when describing a situation in which the whole of something is involved: “the deluge totally submerged the town,” or “the infant was totally dependent on his parents.”
This word is used to signal truth, simplicity, and confidence. It should signify something that is fundamental or elementary, but too often this word is used in the context of things that are far from basic in order to create a sense of authority and finality, like in “Basically, he made a bad decision.”
“Essentially” is the slightly elevated form of “basically.” Speakers overuse this word as a way to express finality, or as a filler to elongate a sentence: “That’s essentially the long and short of it.” “He had essentially no idea what was going on.” “The plan is, essentially, to speak with the board.” Again, removing “essentially” from these sentences does not alter the meanings in any way, because “essentially” is not essential. By making your statement more succinct, it will stand out from the crowd.
“Really” and “very” are bittersweet adverbs in English; on the one hand, they provide a lexical boost to the description at hand — “That was a really entertaining show,” “The talk was very interesting.” Using these adverbs helps the listener understand that the show or talk provided more-than-average engagement for the speaker.
The problem is that, like “fantastic” and “great,” “really” and “very” are terms that chain speakers to unremarkable language. To eliminate the “really/very” crutch and enliven your speech, select one punchy or creative adjective instead: “breathtaking, provocative, knee-smacking, charitable.”
The cardinal sinner of lazy words, “like” is interspersed in dialogue to give a speaker more time to think or because the speaker cannot shake the habit of using the word. “Like” should describe something of the same form, appearance, kind, character, or amount. But, very often, it is used involuntarily in conversation, just like “um.”
“Just,” as demonstrated by TV chefs like Gordon Ramsay, is used to signify a simple action. “Just add the onions and garlic to the pan and just let them sizzle in the oil. Then, just toss in your greens.” Viewers understand that cooking is supposed to be easy and simple. But, in this case — and in many non-culinary situations — over-reliance on “just” is redundant and makes paying attention more, not less, effortful. Letting actions speak for themselves should amply demonstrate the simplicity of the task.
The thing is . . .
As with the crutch-words covered thus far, there are times and places for each example; the Grammar Grinch will not pop out of thin air the instant one of these escapes a speaker’s lips. But for professional discourse, sidestep phrases like “the thing is.” What is the thing, exactly? Prefacing a statement with this crutch dilutes “the thing” on which you’re about to expound. Don’t water down “the thing.” State it outright.
For what it’s worth . . .
“For what it’s worth” is an unnecessary lead-in that provides listeners the opportunity to think “whatever you’re about to say will probably not be worth much.” In other words, this crutch works against a speaker’s message by downplaying the thought or opinion he or she wishes to share. Operating as a phrasal hedge, “for what it’s worth” can be used strategically to mitigate offense in a heated discussion. But, in situations when the strength of an idea is important to communicate, this phrase isn’t worth much at all.
This word should signify an action which is readily observable, recognized, or understood. Speakers tend to use it, however, to emphasize their point with regards to things that aren’t necessarily obvious: “Obviously he should have thrown the ball to first base.” What crutch words do you rely on?
In a weird way . . .
“In a weird way, I feel like his point was irrelevant to the discussion.” Introducing a statement as the product of some “weird” condition does a disservice to the speaker’s contribution. What purpose does it serve to prequalify (and disqualify) an opinion or observation as “weird”? And, what if the listener disagrees that any peculiar connection has been made in the first place?
You know? Right?
Perhaps in a quest to be more inclusive of others in conversation, speakers today often turn definitive statements into inconclusive questions, either through intonation or question tags.
Listeners often perceive these tags as a sign of the speaker’s reservation or uncertainty. If that is the speaker’s intention, then there’s no problem. But to convey confidence, assurance, and expertise, speakers should present statements definitively, without using these question crutches.