Crutch Words That Can Ruin Your Sentence

honestly

It's human nature to rely on crutch words. They’re the comfy sweatpants of our vocabularies. So familiar, so bland, so cozy that you slip them into your sentences without even realizing it. Maybe you add a friendly “you know?” to the end of your sentences. You lean on “um” and “like” when you’re nervous. You preface your opinions with “honestly” or “seriously,” or you add a “literally” here and there: “I’m literally starving!”

What could be wrong with that? 

Like fashion disasters, word disasters say a lot about you. In some cases, these crutch words are flat-out wrong. In other cases, they’re technically correct, but they’ll ruin an otherwise decent sentence, communicating to everyone you’re not specific or adventurous with your word choices.

But we’re here to help with the word makeover your sentences need! Let's start with honestly. This crutch word is used to assert authority or express incredulity, as in, "Honestly, I have no idea why he said that." However, it rarely adds honesty ("truthfulness") to a statement. (Does the speaker have reason to lie?) Honestly has been with us a long time (the Latin word for "honorable" is honestus), but it's time to stop overusing it.

A simple word change can do wonders for your sentence: "Surprisingly, I have no idea why he said that."

So step out of the sweats and into first-class word choices. (Whether or not you rock that fancy monocle is up to you. We think it looks smart.)

WATCH: Attention, Word Offenders: Avoid These Words

well

Well, here are the results of the study.” If you're presenting important information to colleagues, prefacing the meat of a sentence with a word like well diminishes the impact of whatever follows. When used in this way, this adverb is an example of a hedge. Just as botanical hedges soften the edges of a yard, linguistic hedges weaken the force of a statement.

There are better transition words. If you want to add information to what you've already stated, consider one of these words, or their synonyms:

Your new sentence: “Consequently, here are the results of the study.”

so

Like well, so is a linguistic hedge that has gained popularity in recent years. “So, here’s what I’ve been thinking.” “So, as we see in this graphic ... ” “So, yeah, that’s kind of what I thought.”

At times, speakers purposefully use hedges like so for stylistic effect, perhaps to appear more down-to-earth in front of an audience. Such a tactic is fine in small doses. But, prefacing every sentence with this hedge signals to listeners that the speaker is nervous and unfamiliar with giving presentations. “So, that’s a great question. So, let me try to answer that ... "

Try one of these other transition words:

Your new sentence: “At any rate, here’s what I’ve been thinking.”

um, ah, er, uh

During an informal chitchat with friends, an occasional um or ah is perfectly natural and offers the speaker a brief moment to formulate new thoughts. However, when frequently used, these crutch-mumbles make it difficult for the listener to retain the speaker's point. In formal presentations, avoid these entirely if you want to come across as professional and prepared.

These are words that need to be cut, not replaced. And we're not holding your hand as you toss them out—along with those threadbare pants you're hanging on to (you know the ones).

literally

This adverb should be used to describe an action that occurs in a strict sense. Often, however, it is used inversely to emphasize a hyperbolic or figurative statement: "I literally exploded with anger. It was a scene." Literally is one of the most famously used crutch words in English, and its use to give emphasis has been debated for centuries—literally! (You'll even find it in Little Women: "The land literally flowed with milk and honey.") Derived from the Latin term meaning "of letters," the word literally was first recorded in 1525–35.

To express hyperbole, try:

Your new sentence: "I absolutely exploded with anger. It was a scene."

The next word may surprise you.

look

Look, that’s beside the point.” “Look, all I’m saying is ...” “Look, there’s an epidemic of using look as a crutch word.” Look is the speaker’s invitation for the listener to see and understand the speaker’s point of view. But, does it help in providing that understanding? Not at all, and when used repeatedly, the listener might not want to understand.

There are other ways to preface your opinion. Of course, this will vary with your exact message. Try:

Your new sentence: “Frankly, that’s beside the point.”

fantastic, great, awesome, super

These adjectives tend to be on speakers’ semantic speed-dial whenever a compliment or descriptor is needed: “Great, that’s just so great.” “This is a fantastic proposal, just fantastic ideas; wouldn’t expect anything less from such fantastic people.”

When speakers gravitate toward any one of these (or other) adjectives to describe the world around them, it’s time to visit the thesaurus for a few peppery alternatives. Try:

Your new sentence: “This is a first-rate proposal, just fantastic ideas; wouldn’t expect anything less from such exceptional people.” (Maybe a bit much  ... but you get the idea!)

like

The cardinal sinner of lazy words, like is interspersed in dialogue to give a speaker more time to think or because the speaker cannot shake the habit of using the word. Like should describe something of the same form, appearance, kind, character, or amount. But, very often, it is used involuntarily in conversation, just like um.

Go ahead and go shopping ... for new words.

actually

Actually is the perfect example of a crutch word. Dating back to 1400–50, it is meant to signify something that exists in reality, but it is more often used as a way to add punch to a statement (as in, "I actually have no idea"). If you're confessing something, try:

Your new sentence: "Candidly, I have no idea."

seriously

Seriously has lost its gravitas with overuse. If someone is rushed to the hospital with massive internal bleeding after a car crash, the person is seriously injured. The person would have every right to say (if conscious), “I’m seriously about to die.” If, however, the speaker is “seriously about to die” after passing gas on the subway, she’ll have to live with the fact that she will continue to live, even as the odor reaches its apex.

If you must exaggerate, try these:

Your new sentence: "Cut the comedy. I'm about to die."

basically

This word dates back to the early 1900s, though base has a Latin root. Basically has been used to signal truth, simplicity, and confidence. But it should signify something that is fundamental or elementary, but too often this word is used in the context of things that are far from basic in order to create a sense of authority and finality, like in "Basically, he made a bad decision."

If you want to underscore a point, try any of these words:

Your new sentence: "Indeed, he made a bad decision."

Basically is just one of several words that present similar problems. Read on.

totally

“I’m totally up for anything right now.” “Einstein’s theory of relativity is totally relevant.” “This budget you prepared is totally impressive!”

Remove totally from the sentences above, and the speaker immediately gains more credibility and no longer sounds like a gum-smacking tween. Totally, which dates back to 1500, is yet another of the numerous adverbs that have become vapid with overuse. However, it's not a crutch word when it retains its full meaning, like when describing a situation in which the whole of something is involved: “the deluge totally submerged the town,” or “the infant was totally dependent on his parents.”

Let's try one of our new words for emphasis: “Beyond doubt, this budget you prepared is impressive!”

obviously

This word should signify an action which is readily observable, recognized, or understood. Speakers tend to use it, however, to emphasize their point with regards to things that aren't necessarily obvious: "Obviously he should have thrown the ball to first base."

Your new sentence: "Of course, he should have thrown the ball to first base."

 

Obviously you'll be avoiding all these words when you need to create a riveting slideshow presentation. We have tips to make sure that isn't boring either. 

essentially

Essentially is the slightly elevated form of basically. Speakers overuse this word as a way to express finality, or as a filler to elongate a sentence: “That’s essentially the long and short of it.” “He had essentially no idea what was going on.” “The plan is, essentially, to speak with the board.” Again, removing essentially from these sentences does not alter the meanings in any way, because essentially is not essential. By making your statement more succinct, it will stand out from the crowd.

really, very

Really and very are bittersweet adverbs in English; on the one hand, they provide a lexical boost to the description at hand—“That was a really entertaining show,” or “The talk was very interesting.” Using these adverbs helps the listener understand that the show or talk provided more-than-average engagement for the speaker.

The problem is that, like fantastic and great, really and very are terms that chain speakers to unremarkable language. To eliminate the really/very crutch and enliven your speech, select one punchy or creative adjective instead:

Your new sentence: “The talk was provocative.”

Think of adjectives as accessories that pop, and use them sparingly.

just

Just, as demonstrated by TV chefs like Gordon Ramsay, is used to signify a simple action. “Just add the onions and garlic to the pan and just let them sizzle in the oil. Then, just toss in your greens.” Viewers understand that cooking is supposed to be easy and simple. But, in this case—and in many non-culinary situations—over-reliance on just is redundant and makes paying attention more, not less, effortful. Letting actions speak for themselves should amply demonstrate the simplicity of the task.

The thing is ...

"The thing is, I have an appointment at 2, so I can't join you." As with the crutch-words covered thus far, there are times and places for each example; the Grammar Grinch will not pop out of thin air the instant one of these escapes a speaker’s lips. But for professional discourse, sidestep phrases like the thing is. What is the thing, exactly? Prefacing a statement with this crutch dilutes “the thing” on which you’re about to expound. Don't water down “the thing.” State it outright.

This one's the equivalent of a hideous shirt. How about adding a rarely used, unique word instead?

Your new sentence: "Lamentably, I have an appointment at 2, so I can't join you."

For what it's worth ...

For what it’s worth is an unnecessary lead-in that provides listeners the opportunity to think “whatever you’re about to say will probably not be worth much.” In other words, this crutch works against a speaker’s message by downplaying the thought or opinion he or she wishes to share. Operating as a phrasal hedge, for what it’s worth can be used strategically to mitigate offense in a heated discussion. But, in situations when the strength of an idea is important to communicate, this phrase isn't worth much at all.

Here are some other interesting transition words we haven't discussed:

Of course, you should use them sparingly. Instead of "For what it's worth, I have never liked that restaurant," try: "At any rate, I have never liked that restaurant."

In a weird way ...

In a weird way, I feel like his point was irrelevant to the discussion.” Introducing a statement as the product of some weird condition does a disservice to the speaker's contribution. What purpose does it serve to prequalify (and disqualify) an opinion or observation as weird? The word, which can mean "unearthly or uncanny" was popularized by Shakespeare when he referred to the witches in Macbeth as werde sisters. And, what if the listener disagrees that any peculiar connection has been made in the first place?

Is the word curious ("highly unusual, odd, strange") a better fit for your sentence?

Your new sentence: "Curiously, I feel like his point was irrelevant to the discussion."

You know? Right?

Perhaps in a quest to be more inclusive of others in conversation, speakers today often turn definitive statements into inconclusive questions, either through intonation or question tags: "It's tough to make bread from scratch, you know?" "It's too expensive, right?"

Listeners often perceive these tags as a sign of the speaker’s reservation or uncertainty. If that is the speaker’s intention, then there’s no problem. But to convey confidence, assurance, and expertise, speakers should present statements definitively, without using these question crutches.

How would you revamp these sentences? Armed with your new transition words and Thesaurus.com at hand, we think you're ready to tackle these and other tricky crutch words on your own. Make them fabulous!

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