There are words in every language that, under certain circumstances, provide a warning not directly related to their literal meanings. We all learn this at an early age. For example, when my parents addressed me using my middle names, that was a red alert — I knew I was in big trouble. It wasn’t as if they had named me “William Naughtyboy MacDonald”; like the sound of a rattlesnake’s tail, my middle name was harmless by itself, but indicated that something very bad was imminent. There are other examples. When a politicians begins a sentence with “My friends . . .”, that usually is a warning: “I am about to say something that my real friends strongly support, but that this crowd will disagree with.” When a customer service representative uses the word “understand” (e.g., “I can understand why this would be frustrating to you”), it means, “I cannot do anything to fix this situation to your satisfaction, so I will fall back on empathy to try to appease you.” When we hear words like these, little sirens should go off in our heads.
What we may not realize is that sometimes, we’re the ones using the rattlesnake words. There are certain words that people use, often without even thinking about it, that will raise alarms in their readers’ heads, and should raise alarms in our own. Identifying and vigilantly watching out for such words is an easy way to improve our writing.
One such word is “clearly”. My first legal research and writing professor pointed this one out to me, explaining that when people write “Clearly . . .”, they often mean, “I do not have any persuasive evidence or argument to back this up, so I am hoping that my sheer earnestness will convince you that . . .”. Once you start paying attention, you realize that this is largely true. Why? Isn’t it possible that you might actually present sound facts and logic sufficient to persuade your reader of your point? Of course it is — but when that happens, you no longer feel the need to proclaim that your point is “clear”. The clarity is obvious. “Clearly”, like patriotism, is often a last refuge, and when you find yourself writing it, you should immediately stop and ask yourself if you really are presenting an effective argument.
Another example is “various”. It seems like such a harmless little word, useful even — all it means is “of different types”. But when you find yourself using this word, you should immediately freeze and back away very carefully. Somehow “various” has come to be seen as a linguistic panacea that will strengthen any phrase. Perhaps it’s the Latinate sound of the word, with forceful “v” up front and the splash of vowels at the end. But because of that reputation, people throw “various” in when they know at some level that their wording is weak. Say you’re writing a resume and all you can come up with for a certain job description is “Performed tasks for managing partner . . .”. That is obviously totally lame — completely nonspecific, with no indication of what you did or how well you did it. No one would write that. But throw in “various” and suddenly the phrase seems brilliant. “Performed various tasks for managing partner . . .” — for whatever reason, many people have been trained to believe that that description somehow carries real weight. Hey, I didn’t just perform tasks; I performed various tasks!
But what did that word really add? It specified that the tasks were of different kinds, which would have been implied by the plural (“Performed tasks”) in the first place. “Various” added nothing but comfort to that phrase — for the writer. The reader will still come away with no understanding of what the tasks were and how well they were done. The lesson is simple: when you find yourself using “various”, it is a sign that you know your writing is weak, but you are only trying to apply a band-aid when you really should be resetting the bone. In whatever context — resumes, letters, memoranda, reports — when you feel like writing “various”, ask yourself if the real solution is to be more specific and detailed.
Once you realize these rattlesnake words are out there, you will begin to notice your own idiosyncratic uses of them. Don’t ignore them! Or they may bite you in the end.