Words and phrases that can undermine or weaken the message in a good story
January 28, 2013
Kathryn Elizabeth Etier
Want to go from poser to authority in zero seconds? Drop the qualifiers. Which of the following sentences was written by the expert? A) Qualifiers probably weaken statements; or, B) Qualifiers weaken statements. When readers come across qualifiers, a red flag is often raised, and boldly written across it is “Well, do they or don’t they?” or “Why are you including this information if you’re not certain it’s correct.”
Qualifiers are those words that take statements from certainty to maybe, protecting the user from making blanket statements or issuing misleading (or laughable) “facts.” Although qualifiers are at times necessary for clear communication, they can also dilute the intent of the written word. Consider “People like me” vs. “Some people like me.” The first example implies that all people like me (a statement that is probably untrue); the second admits to the fact that I am not universally adored—an important distinction.
Writers are artists who paint with words; they must implant pictures in the minds of their readers. Qualifiers might work for impressionists whose intent is for the reader to get a general idea of what could or might be. Realism requires telling the reader what is. Qualifiers also reduce the perception of a writer’s expertise and distort the picture the writer wishes to transfer from his head to his reader’s.
When is it a good idea to use qualifiers? Fiction writers should limit their use of qualifiers to dialogue (“Suzy said, ‘I really like boys,’” or “Suzy seems to like boys.”), quantifiers (virtually no people, the majority of horned reptiles), and clarifiers (nearly dark). While there is a bit of room for qualifiers in expository writing, writers who wish to convey specific ideas are served best by eliminating them when editing (my personal hobgoblins include, but are not limited to, “really,” “very,” and “lots of.” By the time I remove them all, I have reduced my manuscript by about 25%.). Nonfiction writers should avoid them to the best of their ability.
So, what qualifiers will change exposing (“facts” of the story) to surmising? Here are a few that haunt writers, no matter their medium (advertising writers seem to use qualifiers to make equivocal product claims, especially those writing copy for pharmaceutical ads, e.g. “Fibromyalgia is believed to be…,” “Brand X has been demonstrated to relieve symptoms in most patients.”):
|a (whole) lot
a good deal
a great deal
a small number
for a long time
may have been
might have been
While this list is not complete—some of the words and phrases have additional variations and writers are capable of creatively qualifierizing as they feel necessary—it is a helpful reminder of what words undermine an intended message.
Should all qualifiers be eliminated? Aye, there’s the rub. Sometimes qualifiers are necessary to express sentiments and description exactly as the author intends. Researching “qualifiers” will be rewarded with a plethora of rules regarding their use, utility, and raison d’etre. Total confusion may also be a consequence. The best way to decide if a qualifier belongs in a passage is to ask:
1) Does it undermine, contradict, or negate what one is trying to say? If it does, trash it.
2) Does it clarify? If yes, keep it.
3) Am I hiding behind it to disguise my ignorance? If yes, dump it and do your research.
4) Does it communicate anything? If not, deep six it.
5) Can the sentence be improved or strengthened by removing the qualifier and using more forceful language? If yes, go for the overhaul.
Are you like many readers? Do you think you might agree that this is possibly the most important advice you may ever read about qualifiers? If you are, please return to “Want to go from poser to authority in zero seconds?” and reread the entire column. If you are not and you think this is invaluable advice, let’s do lunch.