More Meaningless Words

The Weeds of Vocabulary

The italicized “more” in the title of this post signifies a greater degree of meaninglessness in words rather than an increase in their occurrence. In an earlier blog, you read about several innocuous phrases that have crept into our daily language, each of which casts doubt on the competence of the presenter or the audience. Another group of phrases and words casts doubt about the content itself:

              • “Sort of”
              • “Pretty much”
              • “Kind of”
              • “Basically”
              • “Actually”
              • “Really”
              • “Anyway”

These phrases have taken on the frequency of fillers, empty words that surround and diminish meaningful words, just as weeds diminish the beauty of roses in a garden. Most speakers are unaware that they are using fillers, and most audiences don’t bother to think of their implications.

Sometimes, these words can have a purpose. In a New York Times article about author David Foster Wallace, writer Maud Newton noted that “Wallace’s nonfiction abounds with qualifiers like ‘sort of’ and ‘pretty much.’” But she also noted that his use of these meaningless words was intentional, a “subtle rhetorical strategy” to make a critical point and defuse it with irony. As a prime example, she cited the title of one of Mr. Wallace’s collected essays: “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think.”

Presenters do not have the luxury of indulging in irony or—with all due respect—the literary talent, to engage in such artful wordplay. Qualifying words lessen the importance and the value of the nouns and verbs they accompany. Those nouns and verbs represent the products, services, and actions of the business—the franchise—that the presenter is pitching, and a presenter must not diminish their worth. Parents do not describe their children as “sort of cute.”

Instead, follow the advice of the Strunk and White classic, The Elements of Style: “Use definite, specific, concrete language.” To accomplish this you must diligently delete meaningless words and phrases from your speech, a task easier said than done because of their pervasiveness. One way to kick the habit is to capture the narrative of your next presentation with the voice record function on your smart phone, then play it back post mortem and listen to your own pattern. (You’re in for a surprise in more ways than one.) You will have to repeat this process several times before you start correcting yourself, but do it you must.

Ms. Newton put the challenge perfectly at the end of her article:

Qualifications are necessary sometimes…But the idea is to provoke and persuade, not to soothe. And the best way to make an argument is to make it, straightforwardly, honestly, passionately.

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