The 5 Most Overused Words (and how to stop using them)

by Jessica Santina. 

If much of the writing that happens these days is any indication, there really is nothing new under the sun.

People have amazing dinners, amazing weekends with family, amazingly productive workdays. Just this morning, E Online wanted me to read its list of “10 amazing facts” about Jennifer Aniston’s new fiance.

Amazing? Really? Will I learn things about her fiance that will overwhelm me with surprise? And although I’m sure your dinner was superb and delectable, and that a productive workday fills you with an enormous sense of personal satisfaction, I doubt that either created for you a sense of sudden wonder and awe.

What has happened to our vocabularies? Why do we keep using the same words over and over again? Are we so short on words that we have to rely on repeating the same old, hackneyed expressions to carry the weight of our ideas?

We authors frequently find ourselves attached to words, but it’s precisely this attachment that requires us to throw those words overboard. Overused, tired words and phrases have an inherent lack of precision…they don’t quite hit the nail on the head, but they’re close, and they become convenient crutches. The problem is that they bore the reader. And your reader, after all, is everything.

Here’s my list of the 5 biggest offenders (or 6, if you count “amazing” – and I do):

  1. Awesome: See “amazing” for my response to this one. One of my favorite comedians, Eddie Izzard, points out that when something is truly awesome, it fills you with awe. Your mouth drops open. You’re completely stunned by awe, overwhelmed by it. Yet we use “awesome” to describe hot dogs. Save this one for the moments when it fits. And next time you hear someone say, “That was awesome!” ask them, “You mean, like a hot dog?”
  2. Literally: This overused word is also one of the most incorrectly used. People often use “literally” in places where it’s not even necessary, and would only call for you to use other overused words (like really, very, actually, truly); it’s merely added for emphasis in places where it’s not needed. This word means “in a literal sense, actual.” Whether you say you’re “literally fuming” (which, unless you’re on fire, is incorrect) or that you are “literally sitting there,” the word adds literally nothing to the sentence. So can we please stop using it?
  3. Unique: This one means “one of a kind.” As in “nothing else is like it.” This is surprising when you consider how often you see it. Let’s stop using it to describe shirts (of which there are millions) or other people’s perspectives (which is mostly an insult anywhere, and is often code for “you’re odd or strange”), and save it for the things that really are one-of-a-kind.
  4. Interesting: Rarely is something described as “interesting” being complimented. “Interesting” is an abstract word whose overuse has done a great disservice to its meaning—if everything can be interesting, is anything, really? In fact, you tell me something’s interesting, and I’m immediately bored. Instead, why not replace that “interesting” with “provocative” or “imaginative” or “playful”? Better yet, rather than telling me something’s interesting, show me through concrete descriptions what makes it interesting.
  5. Basically: This one ranks with “literally” as being utterly overused, misused, and useless. Unfortunately, however, I see it everywhere. It means “when broken down to its fundamentals,” or “at a basic level.” It’s used way too often, at times when it’s wholly unnecessary, as in, “So, basically, what I told her was this…” Unless you’re explaining it to a 5-year-old, you don’t need to give it to me “basically.” I think I can keep up.

Got any others to add to this list? We’d love to have you share them. Literally.

Jessica Santina is a Lucky Bat Books Project Manager, a professional editor, writer and ghost-writer, and that special blend of expert who creates order out of the chaos as she takes your book from early manuscript to its published finale in print and ebook.

10 thoughts on “The 5 Most Overused Words (and how to stop using them)”

  1. “interesting” to me is used instead of “OK, you’ve stated your point, or tried to interject something into the conversation, but I’m not interested in hearing you, or Fine, let’s get back to the subject at hand.”

  2. I couldn’t agree more, although I tend to fall in them bottomless pits of constantly writing “amazing”. I loved the little info on each word and I’ll take it on-board, thanks for the post! 🙂

  3. I get bothered more when they overuse the word and. Is it really that hard to just use a few commas to save the and until the end?

  4. Another overused and INCORRECTLY used word is the word issue. People think the word issue means the same as the word problem, but it does not.

    1. Related to the overuse of ‘issue’…is a favorite corporate term: “Challenge” instead of “problem”, or worse, “budget cut”.

      “Next year’s budget includes a 7% challenge.”

      “The system has a challenge.”

      Ahhh…but doesn’t “challenge” sound energetic and fun?

  5. I have been told, but cannot verify, that when Queen Elizabeth II says “How interesting” it means your time is up, and she is moving on to the next person.

  6. My vote for the most overused word goes to “yummy.” It is frequently used to describe food, sometimes in the same sentence as “amazing.”
    Example: “OMG, we had the most amazing cupcakes! They were so yummy.”
    No one over the age of 12 should be permitted to use the word yummy. It makes me picture a morbidly obease woman in stained sweatpants stuffing doughnuts in her mouth and licking her fingers. Picture it. Not a pleasant sight, is it?

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