Hands up if you’ve ever read something and thought “why is this so difficult to read?” or “why don’t they just say it like it is?”.
?♀️?♀️?♀️ Yup, that’s me all the time.
And for me it’s often really easy to see why it’s difficult to read. There might be a lot of nominalisation. Or perhaps there’s a lot of passive sentences. Or maybe there aren’t a lot of personal pronouns so it’s hard to follow who’s doing what.
But sometimes there are other unnecessary words that don’t fall into these categories. Let’s take a look at them, work out why they’re problematic, and learn how to limit them in our own communication.
What are unnecessary words?
You don’t have to be Einstein to understand what unnecessary words are. Simply put, they’re words or phrases that don’t add any value or meaning to your communication. These can occur in both spoken and written forms. They can occur in spontaneous or planned texts too.
Types of unnecessary words
There are two types of unnecessary words:
- Individual words
- Phrases, which include multiple words
Depending on the situation, you can often remove individual words to make your text clearer. In particular, you can generally remove adjectives and adverbs without changing the meaning too much. If you don’t know or need a refresher, adjectives describe attributes of nouns. For example, red, big, happy, and fresh are all adjectives. On the other hand, adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. For example, quickly, just, often, and extremely are all adverbs.
Sometimes we write or say phrases that aren’t necessary to get our message across. I was talking to someone the other day and noticed that I said “what I want to say is X”. Instead, I could have easily said “I want to say X”. I’ve also recently noticed that I say “what I mean to say is X” rather than “I mean X”. It’s so easy to add in extra words, especially as native speakers, so we need to be self-aware so we can pick up on these patterns and change them if we want to.
Other common unnecessary phrases are:
- Due to the fact that
- On a monthly basis
- In order to
- For the purpose of
- At this present moment in time
These are all unnecessary because we can still retain the same meaning by changing them to:
How much easier is that?!?
Why are unnecessary words problematic in plain English?
If it’s not clear to you yet, using more words than required is unnecessary. Why? Well, more words mean more grammatical structures to understand. And it’s harder to understand and wrap your head around more grammatical structures. It’s as simple as that.
Now, don’t get me wrong — there are times when you will want to be expressive. Could you imagine reading a plain English version of Harry Potter? I love plain English and Harry Potter, but I wouldn’t want to combine the two! There’s a time and place for everything. If you’re writing a novel or delivering a piece of slam poetry, then knock yourself out with all the descriptions and flowery language you want. But if you’re explaining instructions or concepts to people, then I’d urge you to consider limiting
the amount of unnecessary words in your communication. Remember to communicate for your audience and do what’s best for them.
How can I remove unnecessary words from my own communication?
As I always say whenever I’m teaching others to communicate well, we need to first become aware of our language use. Notice and bring attention to our own communication and the way others communicate too. Be curious without judgement.
There are many things you can do to remove unnecessary words, but it will all depend on the situation. Generally speaking, though, there are three things you can ask yourself:
- Is this word or phrase necessary?
- Will my audience benefit from the way this is worded?
- Is there an easier way to say this?
If your answer is “no” to the first two questions or “yes” to the third one, I suggest you consider changing something. Here are a few things to remember when removing these unnecessary words:
- Be brutal — every word should fight for a place to stay. If it’s not serving a purpose (whether in terms of meaning or style), get rid of it
- Use verbs as much as possible — it’s better to say someone should “apply” rather than “make an application”
- Use pronouns — pronouns make it super clear what the reader needs to do, and they shorten the word count too
- Shorten phrases — identify a phrase and try to come up with a way of saying it that uses less words. Be creative.
Here’s an example.
“Our experienced team of licensed professional counsellors can provide you with confidential counselling sessions at no charge to you. For anyone who is interested, please make an inquiry using the contact form below. Please be advised that our turnaround time to respond is about 5 business days, but we will happily respond to your request as quickly as possible.”
Turns into this:
“We provide free and confidential counselling sessions. If you’re interested, please complete the form below. We will respond to you within 5 business days.”
50+ words turn into 24 and still retain the same meaning. Pretty crazy, huh? ?
All I did was:
- Used pronouns: “we” instead of “our experienced team of licensed professional counsellors”
- Shorten phrases: “free” instead of “at no charge to you”
- Used verbs: “complete” instead of “make an inquiry”
- Be brutal: I restructured the whole last sentence because most of the words weren’t serving a purpose
These are some very simple yet effective strategies you can use in your own communication too.