Columns > Published on August 7th, 2013

5 Ways to Get Rid of Your Damn Empty Modifiers

I discussed the need to get rid of empty emphatics when I gave you 8 words to seek and destroy in your writing, but just saying that you should get rid of a thing doesn't say much about the right way to do so. Today I'm going to show you a few of my favorite ways to get rid of your empty modifiers.

What exactly is an empty modifier? 

It's any word whose only role is to intensify the word it's modifying. The prime candidates here are "very" and "really," but "extremely," "intensely," "totally," "absolutely," "quite," and many other emphatic modifiers make the list. Further, many emphatics that shift meaning slightly or add some flavor (e.g., "just" or "damn") should be approached with skepticism, and it's easy to find flimsy "-ly" words that show us why the road to hell is paved with adverbs.

I'm not saying that empty modifiers should never be used. For one, we use them in everyday conversation and they're functional there: they allow us to avoid combing our vocabularies for the perfect word and they buy us time to come up with what we want to say next. Since it accurately reflects real-world behaviors, using these empty emphatics in character speech may lead to more realistic dialogue. As a general matter of principle, though, these empty emphatics should be hunted down and killed without compunction by using any one of the following methods.

1. Cut the modifier.

Sylvia was very crazy.

This is the easiest and often the best solution. The emphatic adds so little in actual meaning that getting rid of it will usually leave your message unchanged while removing clutter. Can't bring yourself to cut your "very"? Follow Mark Twain's advice: "Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."

(Though, these days, you may need to use something a bit more extreme to earn the cut; I offer "mother-fucking" for your consideration.)

2. Use a stronger word.

Bob was really ugly hideous.

When I started dating my second serious girlfriend, we quickly fell in like. Over the first few weeks of our relationship, we enjoyed expressing those feelings by telling each other, "I like you. I really like you. I really, really, really like you." I think we worked our way up to about seven "really"s by the time we stopped.

Both of us were using the repeated "really" as a way to avoid saying the more powerful—and culturally loaded—word that captured our mutual infatuation. There was something adorable about how hard we worked to avoid saying "love," but in the end what we both meant by (really7 × like) simply equaled love.

There are more powerful versions of most words out there. Attractive becomes beautiful becomes gorgeous. Chilly becomes cold becomes freezing. This is one of the few times when I will recommend you go out and use a thesaurus—so long as you're using that thesaurus to find these more powerful descriptors rather than for the intellectual wank-job of adopting a less accessible vocabulary.

3. Emphasize through context and comparison.

Shane was really tall. Shane had to duck his head to get through the doorway. Everyone turned to look up at him as he did. Even slouching, Shane was head and shoulders taller than anyone else in the room. 

Sometimes summary is preferable to scene, but if your point is important enough to deserve emphasizing it's probably important enough to deserve illustration. Showing the character attribute or location quality has another, more substantial advantage: rather than asking your readers to trust you (e.g., "It was really creepy," where "really" serves primarily as a request that the readers please believe the statement), you're causing them to experience the sensations you've described. Trust isn't necessary: Whatever the reader experiences or concludes is sufficient.

But be warned: It's easy to fall into the "He was as tall as a 6' 2'' tree" trap. This isn't about giving data. It's about portraying the sensations that show, not the technical elements of what you're describing, but the experience of it.

4. Allow for understatement.

As we all know, Hitler was extremely anti-Semitic had a bit of a problem with Jews.

Especially when you're making a statement that's common knowledge or already established elsewhere in your work, understatement can get the point across while adding humor. Your reader is also rewarded for their existing knowledge: Since the literal meaning of the text and the intended meaning are different, your reader is "in on the joke."

Be careful with how you use understatement, however. It can be overdone. If you use understatement with the assumption that your reader has access to obscure knowledge, you're likely to confuse them. And whatever you do, don't make jokes about Hitler.

5. Use figurative language for an illustrative image.

Richard was very more obnoxious than a pair of flies buzzing in circles around your head while you're trying to write an end-of-term paper.

I'm a big fan of metaphors—perhaps to the point of excess. Still, there's little doubt that figurative language (in simile or metaphor) can effectively add emphasis in a short space. Unlike solution #3, figurative language can be used during summary. This approach also allows you to combine contradictory images or statements and provide a deeper portrait of person, place, or experience you're describing (e.g., "Her heart was an iron rose").

If you'd like to see one of my favorite examples of metaphor adding emphasis and complexity, check out "Lovesong" by Ted Hughes.

Whichever method you use to eliminate your empty modifiers, it's important to eliminate them in a way that maintains your meaning and provides the emphasis you originally intended. How much do you struggle with empty verbiage like this? And what approaches do you use to kill your damn empty modifiers? Let me know in the comments, below.

About the author

Rob is a writer and educator. He is intensely ADD, obsessive about his passions, and enjoys a good gin and tonic. Check out his website for multiple web fiction projects, author interviews, and various resources for writers.

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