Word inflation can occur in a number of ways. It can be literally using too many words or it can be overuse of certain words. English is a language with subtleties in its words, two words that may seem to mean the same but are slightly different (eg illegal and unlawful1). Overusing word, and using them in the wrong way, can reduce their meaning, leading to new words being created. And thus English continues to expand its vocabulary and perhaps worsen the problem!
It’s quite natural for a writer to wish to intensify their writing or to get a point across. But if such words get used a lot, they lose their meaning. Newspaper headlines perhaps are guilty of some of this – they need the headline grabbing sensationalism.
Some writers have words they use habitually, such as “very” or even “very, very”! We inadvertently make the same point but in different ways, repeating ourselves in order to make a point.
Here are some examples of what I mean to help illustrate my point.
- “I have got” – when “I have” is sufficient eg “I have a pen”. What’s interesting here is that in speech we’ve shortened “I have got” to “I’ve got”.
- “off of” when “off” is sufficient eg “Get off the train”.
- “on to” when “on” will suffice eg “Get on the train”.
- “very clever” when you could use “genius” but also be careful not to overuse it!
- “impact” to mean “effect” – effect is a change which is a result of the actions of another; impact is one object hitting another, or a marked effect on another. So it can be used instead of effect, but only if really significant. A life changing effect, perhaps? And how often have you seen massive impact?
- “gridlock”, when it’s just a bit of traffic – gridlock literally means what is says – the traffic gets so bad that the entire network stops, there’s nowhere for it to go. This happens rarely but the term is used often.
- “chaos”, such as “traffic chaos” when perhaps it is just an inconvenience caused by a temporary traffic light. Chaos is complete disorder and confusion. Perhaps some say chaos where there is confusion but you need the disorder as well.
- In some sectors, “client” has been replaced with “service user” – why use one word when you can do it with two?
This is perhaps a symptom of formal writing slowly following the spoken language. When we speak, we don’t necessarily edit what we say, we may think out loud, we may say words such as “like” or “um“ and “ah” as placeholders. It may well be that these elements creep into our writing, particularly if we write quickly.
This is where a good edit is useful. Take a step back from the writing and have a read through and consider what you’re trying to say. Indeed, I did this myself with this blog and removed:
- “reduce the meaning of them”, in favour of “reduce their meaning”
- “habitually use, without thinking about it” in favour of “habitually”
- so many “so”s.
When proofreading, such instances can be commented upon and verbose text can have suggested edits. Another pair of eyes always helps, not only to spot errors but to refine the text, make it more concise without losing what you are trying to say.
Now, have another read of this blog – did it seem verbose or pleonastic? Despite my editing and my proofreader reviewing it, there are still some bits that could have been removed or redone. Did I leave those in deliberately to make a point?
(1) these two words come from different sources, see my previous blog.