Thursday, January 19, 2023


 Recently, TOF happened upon the following list of words to avoid in one's scrivening and thought to share it with his Faithful Reader. The original YouTuber was unbearably chatty and triggers one of TOF's Pet Peeves [vide infra], so he will not actually link it here. However, a few comments may be in order. 

First, at the risk of falling into the Spanish Barber Paradox, TOF will state the First Unbreakable Law of Writing; viz., There are no unbreakable laws. IOW, each of these shunwords may find a seat at your verbal table, "if God be willing and the creeks don't rise." Foremost among these occasions is dialogue, where any sort of verbal infelicity may be allowable as a means of characterization.

Second, you should shun these words because they usually weaken or distance your prose or add bulk without adding value. The OP kept saying "passive vice," which was TOF's Peeve. She meant passivity as such, not specifically the passive voice. The latter is a particular grammatical form in the conjugation of verbs. It should indeed be eschewed, save in scientific papers, where it has been customary, and in TOF's blog, for its arch flavor.

Third, the list is neither magical nor proprietary. TOF is neither the first nor will he be the last to take note of them. Nor is the list epistemically closed. The Reader may append other words should he be so inclined.

The List [in order alphabetical]

  • definitely 

You should definitely shun this word. (See what I did there? Nyuk-nyuk.) Nothing is lost were TOF to have written instead "You should shun this word." It is one of a family of shunwords that includes actually, really, very, and similar general intensifiers (vide infra). In the sentence

Betsy was definitely worried.
omitting the intensifier loses nothing:
Betsy was worried
  •  is/was
But it's still not quite there. The OP called this "passive voice," but the criminal act here is telling rather than showing. Dropping the word "definitely" still  leaves the sentence flaccid.  Is/was is a colorless word. Other verbs may serve. Instead, the writer should show us Betsy being worried:

Betsy fiddled with the bottles on the sideboard, casting quick glances over her shoulder toward the door. Once, hearing footsteps in the hallway, she muffled the clinking of the bottles and held her breath until the footsteps continued on their way.
  • just
This word is just unnecessary in most cases. It is the literary equivalence of filler, adding bulk without adding value.
  • seem
"Seem" is a wimpy word.
The dark corridor seemed ominous.
First, to whom does it seem so? Second, is the corridor ominous or not. This is like "was." It doesn't say anything. "Seem" might be okay to use in portraying a POV for a character, but there are usually better ways to make the point. Show the corridor in such a way as to make the Reader feel it, 
The corridor loomed dark before her. A draft wafted through it coaxing a low moan from the walls. Somewhere in the darkness a door creaked.
  • somehow
Another wimpy word. Don't tell us a thing somehow happened. Show us how it did happen. Or else in POV how it reflects the character's ignorance. 
Somehow, Betsy found herself walking down that corridor. 
Really? I bet
Summoning her last scrap of courage, Betsy walked down the corridor.
  • somewhat/slightly 
More wimpery! Compare:
Betsy was slightly afraid.
Betsy was afraid.
Betsy's trembling diminished with each step, but never ceased entirely.
  • start
 Do not start doing something; just do it, Compare:
Betsy started to walk down the dark corridor.
Betsy walked down the dark corridor.
  • then
Betsy took a deep breath then stepped into the darkened hallway.
The Reader is no doubt already familiar with the usual passage of time. There is no need to tell him that after one thing happens, then another happens. 
Taking a deep breath Betsy stepped into the darkened hallway.
  • very/really
These words fall into the family of general intensifiers (cf. definitely, supra). It is almost always better to find a more intense word simpliciter. For example, change:
The vampire's teeth were very sharp.
The vampire's teeth were nails piercing her neck,
Or change
Gareth spoke in a really loud voice.
What, compared to a fake loud voice? Try
Gareth shouted.

Passive Voice

Sometimes more than a word ought be shunned, but a construction. Passive Voice is an example. In fiction, the passive voice wimps out because it evicts the actor from the subject slot and replaces it with the recipient. In the active voice, an actor does a thing. In the passive voice, a thing is done (by an actor). The actor is oft omitted, too. Compare:
Active voice:  The parched vampire drained Betsy's blood. 
Here, the vampire is the actor and the subject of the sentence.
Passive voice: Betsy's blood was drained [by the parched vampire] 
In this version, the recipient of the act [Betsy's blood] is made the subject of the sentence, and the actor [the vampire] is exiled to a modifying phrase, to cower behind a preposition.
Passive voice is not mere passivity. Betsy is inactive in the blood-draining. It is the structure of the sentence that distances the Reader from the narrative.

Overkill sentences

Another macroshun is the extra sentence at the end of a paragraph.
The frigate rotated slowly on her long axis as she orbited the Moon. The melted rent down her side marked where a laser cannon had opened her interior to the vacuum. A debris cloud surrounded the wreck, and fitful sparks flashed in the oxygen outgassing from her fittings. No one answered our hails.  The ship was utterly destroyed.
Oh, was she now? No fooling? You mean Faithful Reader couldn't pick up on that from the description? The last sentence in that passage should be utterly destroyed.


  1. "Betty was worried" is a sentence with a linking verb. It does not mean that the dog worried her.

  2. I read an essay that was similar to this blogpost in which it was commenting on Ernest Hemingway’s rules for writing. Hemingway was a huge minimalist and tried to eliminate as many adverbs and adjectives as necessary from his stories.

  3. not defending passive voice or anything, but it' s a preferred tool in certain circles: see, e.g.,

    1. that should be ""

  4. My shunword: utilize. No time that “word” is employed when USE would work just as well.

  5. Nice post thank you Renee


Wonder and Anticipation, the Likes of Which We Have Never Seen

  Hello family, friends and fans of Michael F. Flynn.   It is with sorrow and regret that I inform you that my father passed away yesterday,...