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Worthless Words: Expelling Expletives Quiz

Updated on May 5, 2017

The Plague of Gobbledegook

When we read the word “expletive,” just about all of us start mentally listing the cuss words we know. But expletives are actually even worse than swear words and twice as useless because they cloud the meaning of our written discourse whereas a useful cuss word may clarify an issue or one's feelings about it at least.

An expletive word, according to is “A word or phrase that does not contribute any meaning but is added only to fill out a sentence or a metrical line,” or, basically the very definition of deadwood gobbledegook-ridden bad writing.

The soul of good writing is using words that communicate your intended meaning and then using those words to write carefully crafted and precise sentences that communicate ideas clearly. It sounds too simple, but it is true.

Along with reading, attention to detail and practice make great writers albeit not perfect writers who nail it every time and on the first draft. No such beast exists.

That said, even the best writer occasionally lets the expletives creep in. Like cockroaches and mold, we must be vigilant about getting rid of these nasty creepers because they are always at hand looking for a vantage point from which to infiltrate our writing.

Moreover, like many facets of writing, the search for expletives in writing is ongoing.

Gobbledegook Illustrated

There are many names for gobbledegook, but none of them mean "good writing."
There are many names for gobbledegook, but none of them mean "good writing." | Source

Extra Expletives

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Can you spot the expletives in your own writing?
Can you spot the expletives in your own writing? | Source

Recipe for Expletive Proliferation in Writing

After reading the quiz sentences, it is hard not to ask how such horrid sentences devoid of meaning or value get written. Does somebody pay for that kind of work?

Possibly to achieve distance in writing, perhaps in an attempt at diplomacy, or maybe just to make wiggle room to change the story later, writers add padding in the form of extra words around ideas.

In much the same way that people who don't want to come to the point in conversation do, writers may meander worse than rivers, sometimes becoming so lost in circumlocution that their point is obscured by their desire to insulate it.

And they are the lucky ones because they, at least, can see how their mistakes are made.

The unlucky writer uses expletives in place of logic or insightful thinking. This writer has read too many poorly written instruction manuals and government documents and believed they represented good writing.

Relying on trite phrases and vague words, these writers may be able to produce fat word counts quickly, but like potato chips with empty calories, the writing has no real substance and sometimes borders on word salad.

Usefulness Poll

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Proliferation Poll

How often do you encounter expletives of the useless sort in your daily reading?

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Fix Expletives with These Easy Steps

The Panorama

No matter what your English skill level currently is, the fix is easy. Take the quiz above to suss out your problem level.

1. Then commence practicing by trying to rewrite the sentences so that all of the expletives are removed. Know your enemy: get a feel for unnecessary words.

2. Work on your pre-writing techniques. Make whatever kind of outline, topic tree, or word list that works for you. Make sure it includes a strong and comprehensive thesis statement to help you keep focused. Idling along without a direction leads in the direction of Gobbledegookville. Don't go there.

3. Next, institute a proofreading procedure that will identify expletives. Be brutal in weeding out even passages that only contain a bit of deadwood. The famous American short story writer, Edgar Allen Poe said that every single word in a story should contribute to the ending and even a single word that doesn't must be removed. He was a seriously good writer, so his advice is evergreen. Take it.

4. If you are still struggling with expletives, try deconstructing your sentences to measure how far the subject is from the verb. It's an oversimplification, of course, but also a handy rule that the farther the subject is from the verb, the more vague is the sentence,

5. Enliven your verbs, removing all the passive voice constructions you find because some deadwood is spawned by passive voice constructions that have become unwieldy.

Fix It

Prentice Hall Reference Guide:
Prentice Hall Reference Guide:

The Prentice Hall has a nice, long section about gobbledegook in writing called Conciseness and Wordiness.


The Little Picture

Even if your writing isn't fully overrun with expletives, you may want to try some of the following hacks.

. With patience, using these pesky little composition “rules” will help you hone your writing skills.

Be mindful of the fact that rules are only guidelines and were meant to be broken. That said, the rules exist to help us learn and grow, so our best advice is to learn the rules, practice using them, and then decide if you want to break them.

Fortunately, were expletives are concerned, it is almost never better to break the rules because conciseness and word economy are integral to good writing.

However, it was a creative writer, ))), who invented the character of Mrs. Malaprop for the play, The Importance of Being Earnest.

Mrs. Malaprop was so funny that the term malapropism, which is the “ludicrous misuse of a word, especially by confusion with one of similar sound” was coined for her and is funny enough to have given many a comedian since then a living.

Mrs. Malaprop’s expletives were used to make her funny, so one could argue that they were never expletives, but you get the picture: when it works, no matter how many rules it breaks, it works.

In creative writing this is the kind of breakthrough, seminal writing that the writer seeks whereas in other writing your purpose may be convey your message succinctly. The audience and purpose—Oscar Wilde wrote to entertain—will determine the tone of the writing and the tone will determine individual word use.

In all writing, conciseness and wordiness, with few exceptions, are the desired goal. Here is some word level work writers can do to eliminate deadwood and the gobbledegook where it grows.

1. Avoid sneaky repeating.

Phrases such as “green in color,” “true facts,” or valuable assets” are redundancies because they express the same thing twice, like a written stutter.

2. Don’t use fillers! (We’d say that twice if it wasn’t redundant)

Learn to see filler phrases, again, like potato chips—they go with everything, but they say nothing at the heavy expense of clarity. Our least favorite fillers are “I am going to write about,” “What I want to write about,” and “There is.”

Try this mnemonic device, “Writing about writing is always bad writing.”

3. Combine sentences when you see repletion at the sentence level

Here is an example.

Not great: The ribs will be served with brunch. It will also be served with lunch.

Corrected: The ribs will be served with brunch and lunch.

4. Eliminate which and that.

Not great: The bobcat that is attacking the neighbors belongs to him.

Better: The bobcat attacking the neighbors belongs to him.

Okay, but we did say these were word level hacks, so don’t call us persnickety.

5. Convert phrases and clauses into adjectives and adverbs.

The horse that was very tired becomes the tired horse.

The ape spoke in a hesitant manner becomes spoke hesitantly.

6. Convert prepositional phrases to adjectives.

An employee with duplicity on her mind becomes a duplicitous employee.

Once more, the backdoor to the barn becomes barn backdoor.

7. Use active voice rather than passive.

Among countless other problems, passive voice causes excess wordiness and expletive use in sentences by inconveniencing the subject by separating it from the verb and requiring the use of extra words just to make the strained sentence work.

Horrid: The jockeys were weighed by the race officials.

Better: The officials weighed the jockeys.

Even Microsoft Word will warn you when you use passive voice, so it should be easy enough to eliminate this problem. Please do!

8. Don’t use extra nouns, and when you do, turn them into verbs. Active verbs are one of the hallmarks of good writing.

Really clunky: She made the statement that she agreed with the idea that murder should be outlawed.

Better: She agreed that murder should be outlawed.

9. Ditch clumsy words and jargon whenever possible with shorter, more commonly understood words.

Only use jargon or a highfalutin word when it is the exact word carrying the precise meaning you wish to convey. Sometimes a big or uncommon word is used because it means exactly what you wish to express and often using these words can shorten sentences.

Some example for clarification: Use postprandial if you mean after dinner or antebellum if you mean the South before the Civil War and you are in the clear. If you don't know what it means and mean to say it, then just don't.

Our Pleasure

Please add a comment below to let us know what else you would like to know about expletives or other matters writers care about.


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