“Familiarity breeds contempt.”
~ Aesop’s Fables
Not one of Aesop’s nicer morals, I admit. Nevertheless, if you apply the lesson of “The Fox and the Lion” to overused words and phrases, your writing will be clearer and stronger as a result. I propose that we begin with the plague of intensifiers that has descended upon written English.
An “intensifier” is just what it sounds like: a word that, when attached to another word, is designed to communicate increased intensity. “Very,” “really,” and “extremely” are three examples.
There is nothing wrong with the concept of an intensifier. For example, a paper that earns a grade of B- might be called “good,” while a B paper is called “very good,” a distinction that has a difference.
But we have overused intensifiers. Indeed, we use them so much, and so often, that they have lost their intensity. Even as I write this, I am tempted by specters of intensifiers whispering, Wouldn’t it be better to say that we have “seriously lost the vast majority of” our intensity? Wouldn’t that be – how to say – a really freakin’ cool sentence?
Let’s face it: intensifiers really don’t add very much emphasis. Nope. They really don’t add very much at all. A better term for these words is weakifiers: they add words to your sentence, but they don’t have a strong enough purpose to justify their inclusion. Therefore, those intensifiers weaken your sentence. They are weakifiers.
Now that we know what weakifiers do (clog up our writing) and don’t do (add the emphasis we want to convey), how can we communicate intensity in writing? There are several things you could do, but my favorite is to find a word that has the intensity you’re looking for built in. Recapture those wonderful, rarely-used verbs, nouns, and adjectives.
Instead of “really great,” try “remarkable,” “tremendous,” or “prodigious.”
Instead of “really, really great,” why not “superlative,” “colossal,” or “sublime”?
For “very boring,” consider substituting “tedious” or “wearisome.”
For “very, very boring,” what about “stultifying,” or “interminable”?
If a person “really, really loves” you, put Valentine’s Day cards to shame by declaring that he or she “adores,” “treasures,” and “swoons over” you. Part of the fun in cutting weakifiers is that it helps you to explain what you mean with the vividness that results from precision. How, exactly, is the task or experience you’re describing “boring”? Is it long, not stimulating, repetitive, lifeless…? A better word choice will tell your reader.
Removing those weakifiers – and adding words that say what you mean – is a quick and easy way to boost your writing’s vividness. Let’s all become a little less familiar with weakifiers.
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