The Warning Words List

This page contains my ever-growing list of Warning Words. Warning words are words and sometimes short phrases and expressions which, when an author uses them, are a good indication that something is amiss with either a phrase, sentence, paragraph or even the entire manuscript.

Whereas these words should be used with care, or generally avoided, there is a special group of words that should never be used. Find out more here: The Special Group

The list below will grow steadily, and I'll add links to more detailed explanations on the words that warrant it.

  • offered — when used as a speech tag or for a facial expression
  • both — with we, they
  • eyes — especially attempts at describing "looking" by saying what eyes are doing - also any "alternative" words for eyes start to sound like The Eye of Argon. The verb "to eye" is especially egregious.
  • all — with we, they
  • something — sometimes this word is just redundant. Sometimes it's an indication of laziness. Usually it means something could have been better expressed.
  • breath, breathing and especially breaths
  • seemingly — is this the new hopefully?
  • brain — in particular referring to a person's brain instead of the person ("my brain couldn't understand it")
  • before — can cause ambiguities and syntactic problems when used to mean "in front of" and is sometimes used to force a conjunction where none should be, giving the reader the impression of a non-sequitur.
  • make, of a noise — generally sounds awkward. Better for something to happen, with a particular noise.
  • make + verb or verbable — e.g. "made a look of disgust" rather than "looked disgusted." A form of auxiliary abuse.
  • purposely — not yet in current formal use outside the USA and even there often frowned on as dialect or even error. Often confused with "purposefully" but actually means "on purpose". Often an indicator that there is a better or clearer way to say what you want to say.
  • seem — often covers for POV confusion; the author knows it for a fact but the narrator isn't sure. The best solution is often to use "looked like" because this directly implies "seemed from the narrator's point of view"
  • mind — I know I complained about "brain" already, and "mind" is surely more abstract, right? All too often writers talk about things happening to people's minds rather than directly to them, which is an unnecessary, distracting and immersion-breaking abstraction.
  • clearly — all to often this reveals that something isn't clear to the author, though usually this word is just redundant.
  • thing — there are a few phrases where it is allowed ("I thought I must be seeing things" is one). At all other times this is a good indicator of laziness.
  • kind of — usually redundant. often an indicator of refined clunk
  • way — when found in phrases like "in some ways" "in that way" is usually a sign of laziness or weak style.
  • one — in expressions like "one of those people who...", "one of those things"
  • moment — especially in the plural, or a moment that is anything other than short (he stopped for a few moments)
  • then — frequently indicates that a new sentence would be better, often unnecessary, sometimes an indicator that bland logistics is being described, that the reader probably doesn't need to know. And then there is the even worse crime of and then.
  • find — 'she found that annoying' often a mask for a passive voice; avoiding it usually makes a better sentence. Also "she found she could fly" – can work well when used at the very moment of discovery, but can become an auxiliary abuse, where "she could fly" is a lot stronger.
  • lest — when used properly, as "in case" is often an indication of pomposity or otherwise inappropriate or incongruent register
  • afford — this is fine when used to mean "have enough money for" but often gets used pompously to mean "provide" or "furnish" and even worse when used "metaphorically". This pompous usage can cause ambiguity when trying to use it correctly.
  • never — 1) don't say it unless you mean it. Too often used for emphasis but it is meaningless if the reality is "hardly ever" 2) don't use it as a fancy way to say "didn't": she never blink'd. (Note: this usage is common in North American dialects, so it can be okay in direct speech but be aware that like all dialect, it doesn't travel well, so should be kept out of narration.)
  • dramatic, ~ally — special category, along with words like "ominous" where it behoves the author to convince the reader, not merely tell him.
  • swivel (v.) —  with relation to eyes and heads. Tends to be immersion breaking when it isn't unintentionally funny.
  • while — very often this is used as a conjunction for unrelated features. In the minds of some authors, two things that happen at the same time MUST be expressed in this way, but it is WRONG to use it when narrating perfect actions. Correct usage would be for two imperfect actions whose comparison or association is revealing: "Nero fiddled while Rome burned" - "Adam delved while Eve span*". Compare with "Jim opened the front door while John came in through the back door."
  • in the form of, in the shape of — often can be replaced with "as" but generally indicates that a sentence needs reworking.
  • atop — means "on the topmost point or summit of", with a special usage when on something intended to have something on it, like a dais, or platform (' ... which had been erected by Sisygambis atop a temple tall'). If you use it as an alternative to "on top of" or (worse still) "on", you are either being pretentious or just plain wrong. Combined with certain other words (like "lest") it gives the impression of pretension or pomposity.
  • effect (in the sense "something that has an effect") — usually redundant. "it gave a lurch with a dizzying effect" can be said much better: 'it lurched dizzyingly'
  • actually — almost always redundant. Can be used to good effect in dialog where words are added for effect: "Do you actually mean to tell me you are a circus clown?" carries all the incredulity you need, where "Do you mean you are a circus clown?" he asked incredulously feels forced.
  • unceremoniously — originally used archly as a means to inject slapstick humour, it has become so over-used that it has become a distracting eyesore.
  • apparently — draws attention to the whole process of writing which is about evoking an appearance. Anything that could correctly be described as 'apparent' ought already be obvious to the reader, so saying it is repetitious.
  • emanate — this is a horrible word in any case, but loads of writers use it to try to avoid clunky phrasing, which either results in forced or borderline misuse, or something almost meaningless. If you must use it, use it with precision. It is not a synonym for "to come from"; it literally means "to seep out".
  • elicit — either a sign of laziness: the author is trying to force as much as possible into one sentence; or the author is hung up on telegraphing cause and effect. 'Rinn fired another blast of frost, eliciting another roar.' >> prefer >>  'Rinn fired another blast of frost. The dragon roared [again].
  • Voiced — when used in place of "said". There is a verb "to voice" which is most often used idiomatically in the expression "to voice an opinion". It is a contraction of the expression "to give voice to" meaning to express a shared but unspoken idea or sentiment.
  • A lot — there are a few cases where this is okay, especially if used sparingly. One place where it is almost always an indication that a better sentence is possible is if the current sentence ends with "a lot". Always wrong when used with an action, e.g. "He chopped wood for the fire a lot." Remember, 'alot' isn't a word, whereas 'alright' is all right (or at least, mostly right).
  • Part of [someone] — with thoughts, feeling: "part of her wanted to escape, but part of her wanted to stay." There are all sorts of things wrong with this, but the biggest is that if you abandon this lazy shorthand for ambivalence, you soon discover more subtle, more absorbing ways of conveying it.
  • in terms of — In description, always redundant. 'The richest, in terms of natural resources, of the whole continent' is identical to 'The richest, in natural resources, of the whole continent'. A fill in phrase that fills in only space, with one exception - in a question: 'what, in terms of grammar, is wrong with this sentence, if anything?'
  • Eventually — pretty good in dialog as a way of making the reader impatient, but at all other times definitively banned. I have yet to see a good use for this word in narration. It is so vague that it always begs an undesired question, which means it's probably an example of author laziness.
  • Capable of — when used immediately before the thing that something is used for: '[those aircraft were] capable of scouting far into enemy territory' - you should never need to tell the reader that something is capable of doing the thing that you have told the reader it is doing.
  • with a + [noise noun] — not always bad - can be good for drawing attention to a particular noise among others - but in general better to use the related verb: the barrel banged into the wall rather than the barrel hit the wall with a bang. Using the verb is also a good way to disguise onomatopoeia.
  • allow/enable — this is an old rule from writing user guides that applies just as well, if not even better, in fiction. It comes in two parts:
  1. never use allow when you mean enable. Allow means 'permit' in the sense of letting you do something that is normally restricted or forbidden. Enable means 'make able' in the sense of making it possible to do something that would otherwise be physically or logically impossible, e.g. better access ramps and wider doorways enable everyone to enter and leave the building.
  2. never use enable as the first conjugated verb** in an explanation. This is all about how most people relate to explanations of usage, but applies equally elsewhere. Using "enable" puts the means before the motivation, which often creates a problem of comprehension: 
'Pressing the power switch enables you to turn on the device.' 

- this is painfully common in user guides, and it arises because the writer has a list of "features" to describe, so he has the names of the features first, and what they do second, in his thoughts (and often in his notes, too). It should be written:
'To turn on the device, press the power switch.'

- this is the order of the thoughts in the mind of the reader of the user guide, and is the only effective way of explaining things, and the only way to have any possibility that the reader will remember the instruction.

  • fact - in general this is probably a sign that you're trying to dump info. In particular, if you used the phrase 'the fact that' then you're definitely overexplaining something. And if you aren't, there's a simpler, plainer and clearer way to say it.
  • bodies - don't use it in the plural unless you mean corpses.
  • case - in the phrase 'this was/wasn't the case.' Strong indication that a complete rewrite of the sentence will lead to lots of improvement. Or replace it with "so."
  • feel - when used as an auxiliary for an adjective, especially when there's already a verb in the sentence: 'he awoke feeling cold and sore' >> much better: 'he awoke cold and sore.' Often it's better to replace feel with be: 'he felt happy' >> 'he was happy' — unless you intend to sow doubt.

  • bleak - is fine for a landscape. Avoid it for anything else. But by all means make the reader think it.

* there was a girl in my class at primary school called Eve Spang. If only there had been an Adam David!
** if any kind of technical or commercial writing is part of your day job, you know what this means. If you don't know what this means, find out before anyone else finds out that you don't know!

1 comment:

Brian said...

I have work to do with the word processor's Find and Replace feature.