Words I Deleted Today

A client has asked me make the following deletions in a report I’d prepared for them on a public transit planning issue:

“… serious issues of bus access …”
” … to flow through these critical points …”
” … without extreme and circuitous deviations …”

The deleted words are all “emphatic adjectives,” words that mean nothing more than “Hey!  This bit here is important!”  Serious, critical, and extreme are all-purpose emphatic adjectives, while circuitous becomes emphatic if it’s used redundantly as I did here, “circuitous deviations,” because of course all deviations are circuitous.

Serious A cynical view of these deletions would say that such adjectives increase pressure on the client to do something about an issue and are unwelcome only for that reason.
But the client is right.  I often use emphatic adjectives to underscore points that I want the reader to remember because I know how important they are, but I should really replace each of them with a sentence or phrase that describes the consequence of ignoring the point in question.  For example, instead of speaking of “serious issues of bus access,” I should have said something like “potential obstacles to reliable bus operations accessing the station.”  In other words, rather than pressure the reader with an alarm-word like serious or critical, I should describe what’s at stake more objectively so that the reader can make her own judgment.  Ultimately, our own judgments are the ones most likely to motivate us.
This doesn’t mean I’m planning to swear off emphatic adjectives entirely; some clients want me to be emphatic, and in many contexts — such as short editorial or letter to the editor — emphatic adjectives can be the only way to get attention.  But I do think there’s a general point here that’s helpful for both professonal and activist writing.  Do you toss in lots of emphatic adjectives — serious, critical, extreme, devastating, alarming — to pressure the reader?  Would it be better, in a few more words, to enlighten her?

11 Responses to Words I Deleted Today

  1. Multimodal Man August 13, 2009 at 8:10 pm #

    I have the same habit. I used to frivolous expenditures in describing the effect of bad route design based on political expediency and not actual utility. I expect it to be stricken from the final guidelines report.

  2. EngineerScotty August 13, 2009 at 8:28 pm #

    Good writing style, which discourages excessive overuse of redundant and repetitive prose :), is always welcome–particularly in any sort of formal writinh; your report would certainly qualify.
    That said, I suspect that Strunk and White would find the above-confessed sins to be relatively minor in scope.
    Actually, I don’t have a problem with the “critical points” example; certain points in a transit system require more careful attention to detail. If there are uncritical points in contrast, then identifying potential bottlenecks is appropriate. But if all points are “critical”, you have a problem–both stylistically and operationally.

  3. Wad August 13, 2009 at 10:40 pm #

    Another emphatic word that is useless in, oh, about 95% of the time it’s used, is “totally”.
    It’s a particular bad habit of young people to season their vocabular with “totally” and of course, “like”.
    Totally is either redundant or poorly emphasized.
    Redundancy: “I totally missed my bus this morning.”
    Obviously. You can’t partially miss a bus.
    Bad emphasis: “Converting to a distance-based fare is totally unfair to riders.”
    Not to the ones going a short distance, whose fares are likely going to be reduced.

  4. Richard Chet August 14, 2009 at 5:09 am #

    Noticed that you were in Canberra this week, so I might hazard a guess your client may possibly be tied to the Canberra Transit plan.
    I have unfortunately (in the distant past) had to deal with various areas of the ACT Government and apart from them insisting on steering consultancies to get a particular result despite real world data and the facts, they also tend to be hyper-sensitive to reports that may expose them later to criticism (or the truth).
    Keep up the good work and just take it on the chin. You are dealing with a highly unprofessional rabble in terms of the ACT government bureaucracy.

  5. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org August 14, 2009 at 5:20 am #

    For the record, no, the client was not the ACT Government in Canberra.
    While Canberra faces difficult issues, my impression is that its
    “city-state” structure gives in enormous advantages, compared to other
    Australian urban areas, when it comes to managing public transit and its
    relations with land use and other functions of government.

  6. Jennifer August 14, 2009 at 7:15 am #

    Actually, Strunk & White think it’s a bad thing to do: “7. Do not overstate. When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise. Overstatement is one of the common faults. A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for readers, the object of your enthusiasm.”
    They also say to “Avoid the use of qualifiers” and “omit needless words.” Thanks for the reminder, Jarrett!

  7. Teresa August 14, 2009 at 7:34 am #

    Jarrett, thanks for this! I could write myself one on qualifiers (& their frequent overuse in my writing)in general.

  8. Alon Levy August 14, 2009 at 3:41 pm #

    I’m not sure about totally, but like is used as a quotative: “I’m like, ‘No, you can’t do that here.'” It’s spread to a general-purpose filler since, but that’s the original intention.
    Don’t knock linguistic innovations.

  9. dale August 14, 2009 at 11:26 pm #

    Oh, guilty guilty guilty. I often (but not often enough) sweep through a blog post one last time before publishing, taking out “very,” “extremely,” “certainly,” etc. Only rarely does the force of the writing suffer; usually it’s improved.

  10. Peter August 17, 2009 at 9:17 pm #

    Let me lend my support to the anti-qualifier contingent. In J-school, I had several professors who would, in a not too jocular tone, let us know we had exceeded our allotment of adjectives for the term.
    Also, I’m sorry for dropping out of your readership for a while. The move to Seattle has gone better than I hoped.

  11. Nathanael September 15, 2009 at 4:19 pm #

    Indeed, if you can make the point better by saying “These deviations would increase end-to-end runtime by 5 minutes, which would reduce expected ridership by 20%”, you should do it.
    And perhaps “to flow through these bottleneck points” would be more descriptive and convey the same meaning….