The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Take That And Party

‘That’ is the most annoying word in the English language that I know. It creeps redundantly into sentences that would manage perfectly well without it; the previous sentence, for instance, has an entirely pointless ‘that’ before ‘I know.

Whenever I’ve finished writing something, it’s time for the ‘that’ check. Find every ‘that’ in the document and decide whether it is strictly necessary. If it isn’t, remove it. And then search for all the ‘and then’s to see if they can be replaced with ‘and’s or ‘then’s or can be removed altogether.

Then check for double blank spaces; find ‘ ’, replace ‘ ’. Then check for two full stops – you do this by finding and replacing all the ellipses with something like ‘***BANANA’, then find ‘..’, replace ‘.’ to get rid of all the double full stops, before doing a find ‘***BANANA’ and replace ‘...’ to get all your ellipses back.

There, that’s a top writing tip for you. What else? Well, rewrite all the sentences which I’ve started with ‘well’, for a start. And all the ones I’ve ended with ‘for a start’. Seek, locate and destroy other useless linking words and phrases like ‘however’, ‘though’ and ‘of course’. If I’m writing prose, I'll also get rid of as many adverbs as possible and delete words like ‘almost’, ‘fairly’, ‘nearly’ and ‘quite’ – things either are a thing, or they are not a thing, there’s no such thing as 'almost'.

But what I really want is a gizmo on Word which checks for the accidental over-use of certain words. For example, if you were writing a scary story, you could end up using the word ‘dark’ three or four times a page without realising it. It shouldn’t be too difficult to make such a gizmo.

So why doesn’t it exist?


  1. I'd add: search for "just", and also "was". The latter is usually a sign you're writing in the passive not the active. And I think this was one of your notes to me anyway.

    The Economist Style Guide has a whole section on unnecessary words. It's for journalists, but I think it applies to any prose. And note it links to the ultimate guide - Orwell's Politics and the English language.

  2. Oh yes, 'was' is the word of death. Only use it when then there is no alternative. It sounds like the sort of thing I might say.

    A redundancy that currently irritates me is 'Severe weather warning', when the only type of weather we ever get warned about is of the severe variety. 'Mild weather warning...'

    Thanks for the links. Wordle is almost the thing I want. I want a programme that is pre-set with the standard frequencies for each word usage and flags up any over-usage. Only then shall I be able to write like Dan Brown.

  3. I commit all these sins and worse, so I feel such shame reading this. Each time I try to write something, I find it so difficult to start, as I'm so fearful of getting it wrong.

    I try to get by on mere 'energy', and hope to improve technically with time. The whole thing is thoroughly depressing.

    Gary G