Four Meaningless Words

Published: 13 July 2015

By now, you know how I feel about precision in technical documents. Just in case you don’t…precision is vital to your credibility! Meaningless words make your documents less precise and less credible. I can’t think of a reason to keep them. Here are four meaningless words to eliminate, plus one bonus word that is almost never used correctly. Let’s banish them from our writing!

  1. Shall

Use “must,” “may,” or “should” instead of “shall.” Learn why in my blog post, Resisting “Shall.” The Federal Aviation Administration addressed the “shall” scourge too.

  1. Good

Words like “good” and “bad” are subjective, which makes them meaningless in technical documents. Instead, I describe what is “good” or “bad.” For example, the sentence “Inspect for bad test leads” doesn’t tell readers what makes a test lead “bad.” Instead, I would write “Inspect the test leads for fraying, corrosion, and missing or damaged parts.”

  1. Very

I just remove the word “very” when it is used as an adverb. There is no difference between “very important” and “important.” If I need to express degree or intensity, I use a measurement. For example, instead of writing “Shut down the pump if the casing gets very hot,” I would write “Shut down the pump if the casing reaches 140°F.” Bonus: this rule goes for every adverb of degree, like “extremely,” “almost,” and “too.”

  1. And/Or

The expression “and/or” is meaningless—it cannot be “and” and “or” at the same time. I replace “and/or” with “and” or “or,” whichever is correct.

BONUS: Utilize

Oh boy, this one probably counts as a pet peeve. “Utilize” does have one meaning: using something in a manner other than its intended purpose. When people say “utilize,” they almost always just mean “use.” Even when it’s used correctly, “utilize” sounds like a meaningless buzzword.