Say what you mean
Redundancies and Empty words
Cluttered speech
You should say what you mean. That is not enough though. What if you say what you mean but only you understand what you say? To you, your message is clear. You feel you are expressing yourself fantastically. But, if no one understands your words, then however wonderful your voice is, you can't claim to be a great communicator. Unless, of course, you are the world's best mime artist who can use actions and expressions instead of words. Otherwise, most of us rely on our words.

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at what happens when we don't say what we mean. Part 2 showed us how certain words - jargon, slang and clichés - are verbal clutter that makes it hard for people to understand what we say. Now, let's look at two more kinds of clutter: redundancies and empty words.

Redundant words
These are words that are not needed because they repeat something or they tell us what is already obvious in the sentence. Using redundant words may give your listener a verbal overdose.

In the examples below, we have struck out the redundancy. Read aloud each sentence twice: first with the struck out words; then, without them.

"This is an advance warning! There is danger ahead."

"I am going to write an autobiography about my own life."

"According to my teacher, she said we can go home early today."

"I thought to myself in my mind that I should cheer up."

"In two years’ time, I will be a teenager."

"The reason why we celebrate is obvious."

The deleted words are redundant because they are stating the obvious: warnings have to be in advance; autobiographies are always about the writer's life; thinking has to be within your mind; years refer to time; reasons tell us why.

When you delete redundant words, your sentences become shorter. Well-worded short sentences are easier to understand than long ones. They also sound more upbeat. As a result, people are more likely to pay attention to you.

Empty words
A word is labelled as empty if it doesn't mean anything in a particular sentence. Empty words are also called "weasel words", a term, that author Stewart Chaplin used in 1900. "Weasel words are words that suck the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks the egg and leaves the shell," wrote Mr Chaplin.And, that is what empty words do.

We might use weasel words because we hesitate to make strong statements. In these two sentences, can you see how much stronger each becomes when the weasel words are struck out?

"Brushing my teeth will help to prevent cavities."

"I will try to study harder."

Often, weasel words seep into our speech by habit. Before we know it, we might use them like punctuation marks. For instance: "I will study, like, two hours today. I, like, want to, like, do really well this year. It'll be, like, so cool." It doesn't take a genius to spot the weasel word in this quote.

The weasel-word habit also applies when kids answer "Sure." to questions without thinking. And, overusing strong words like "awesome" can also become a habit. Mount Everest, African elephants and the Taj Mahal are awesome. Going for a movie, eating chicken rice, getting a new hairdo do not qualify for an "awesome". "Awesome" becomes an empty word when it is overused for everything good.

When you overuse "like", "awesome", "random", "sure" and other such words, they become weasel words. As Stewart Chaplin pointed out, weasel words suck the life out of your sentence. However, some people use weasel words purposely to hoodwink others. A shopkeeper may be trying to fool you when she announces that you can "save up to 80%". These are empty words. You may not save anything because "up to 80%" means less than 80%, all the way to zero.

How to decide
If you are not sure whether a word is needed in a sentence, try removing it. If the word was redundant, then your sentence should be fine without it. It may sound crisper and is clearer. That is good, most of the time.

Sometimes, however, it is good to purposely repeat words for impact. For example, saying "I'm so, so very sorry." sounds more heart-felt than an "I'm sorry." alone.

Using more words can also help to soften the blow when you have to give bad news. Take a look at these two sets of sentences. In each case, which is the kinder way of communicating?

"Your grandfather died last night."

"I have some news that I am going to share with you although I am not sure how to say what I have to say. Let me go ahead anyway. I'm so sorry but your grandfather passed away last night."

"You're fired."

"We are having a re-organisation of our company. I'm afraid your services will not be needed here anymore."

As you can see from these examples, shorter is not always better. And, repetition is sometimes powerful. But, to use repetition and long sentences well, you have to first know how to clear the redundancies and weasel words. After that, you can use both your heart and your mind to say what you mean and mean what you say in the best possible ways.

Nonsense verse:
Empty words are sometimes called nonsense words. They are not the same as nonsense verse. Nonsense verse is a special kind of poetic writing. Clever writers use proper grammar and syntax, but make their nonsense verse funny by creating fantastical characters and made-up words. Children's writers who are famous for their nonsense verse are Lewis Carroll, Road Dhal and Dr Seuss. You can find many of their books in our libraries.


The series is brought to you by What's Up in partnership with the Speak Good English Movement of Singapore.