Mark Twain once wrote (no, really, he did): “One isn’t a printer ten years without setting up acres of good and bad literature, and learning — unconsciously at first, consciously later — to discriminate between the two, within his mental limitations.” Within my own mental limitations, I’ve read and written so much in the last couple of decades that I’ve learned, if not what constitutes great writing, then at least which phrases constantly recur in poor writing.
Specifically, I’ve now come across the following six terms so frequently, in articles written for, about, and by lawyers, that I’m finally compelled to write this post and ask everyone to please stop using them, and to explain why. Here they are:
1. “Let me explain.” Superfluous. Maybe the most pointless three words in regular use among writers. Take them out of any article in which they appear and re-read the piece: there’s no difference. You’ve lost nothing except the subtle insult you’ve been delivering to your reader: “Let me explain” = “You probably didn’t understand the complex and clever thing I just said, so let me restate it in terms you’re likelier to understand.” Remove this phrase and give the reader back three seconds of her life that she can put to better use, e.g., humming the first four notes of the theme to “The A-Team.”
2. “In other words.” A red flag for poor communication. Set your word processor to search for this phrase and scan the article you’ve just written. If you find “in other words,” go to the sentence directly previous, and either rewrite it completely or remove it altogether. “In other words” = “I don’t think the phrase I just used was very effective. I’m now going to restate it more clearly.” Take out the previous sentence and the “In other words,” and pick up the paragraph at the new phrasing: It gets across what you’re actually trying to say more clearly. (Unless that rephrasing is itself followed by “Put differently.”)
3. “Put differently.” See #2.
4. “Forget X; Y is what matters now.” This is more of a headline problem, but with the advent of Twitter and the drive for brevity above all, it’s become a text problem, too. This phrase undermines what might otherwise be a legitimate point with ludicrous overstatement. Did X somehow become irrelevant overnight? Has it disappeared, leaving us bereft and wandering the streets, forlornly seeking the comforts of Y? Unless you’re discussing Beta and VHS, and I really hope you’re not, the better approach is to say something like “In addition to X, we now need to consider Y,” or “Y has joined X as issues of concern.” In this vein, see also: “X is dead, so Y.” Unless X is “Babe Ruth” and Y is “throw strikes,” stop saying this.
5. “X, and Y, and Z, oh my!” I literally clench things (jaw, fists, rosaries) when I read this phrase. The original source is a movie released 76 years ago, so it’s maybe time to find a slightly more current pop-culture reference. This is the lazy standby for the headline or opening sentence of an article that talks about three separate phenomena related in some way not readily evident to the writer. What frequently makes it worse is the failure to even pretend we care about scan: “E-discovery and artificial intelligence and unauthorized practice of law rules, oh my!” Make it stop, please.
6. “Very.” I’ll leave this one, not to Mark Twain (to whom it’s often wrongly misattributed), but to its true originator, William Allen White: “Never use the word ‘very.’ It is the weakest word in the English language; it doesn’t mean anything. If you feel the urge of ‘very’ coming on, just write the word ‘damn’ in the place of ‘very.’ The editor will strike out the word ‘damn,’ and you will have a good sentence.”