Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Always Never Something: Eliminating Five Overused Words

Having logged many years teaching English and theatre at New York City high schools, Shannon Reed now teaches freshman English Composition at the University of Pittsburgh. Here Shannon shows how teachers can work with students to improve their writing by focusing on five overused words.

We're getting to the time in the school year when despair may set in, if I recall my years of teaching high school correctly. We're not quite at summer yet, but far enough along that whatever dreams we might have had ("This is the year the students will read Dickens! All of Dickens!") have faded. On the other hand, we know our students pretty well at this point, and initiating a few surgical strikes against a common writing problem might be a helpful way to teach in the writing classroom before the school year wraps up.

I mean, of course, those perpetual bugaboos: Always. Never. Many. Most. Something. I guarantee that unless you or another teacher has specifically tackled these overused words with your students at some past point, they are pulling down your students' writing, making it look amateur instead of sophisticated. Yet you, like me, may have gotten so used to crossing out these words (or just ignoring them, as there are bigger problems to point out) that you may not have realized how simple it is to help your students learn to fix overusing these words. Let's take a look.

The Impossible Always

First, two examples, typical of students' use of always in writing:

"My mom is always telling me to go to bed earlier."

"I've always wanted to be a fashion designer."

Really? Your mother is perpetually, without ceasing, telling you to go to bed earlier? What a pain. Or, you've wanted to be a fashion designer since the dawn of time, even pre-dating your birth? Wow.

Sarcasm is probably not the way to go, but it does make the point: the use of always has become habitual, and it's habitually wrong.

Never is just as bad:

"My best friend is never home when I need to talk to someone."

Um, how did you guys get to be best friends then?

These silly sentences happen when student write the way that they speak. Many times, that's a good thing — certainly the ability to capture character or voice is a lovely characteristic in fiction — but in formal writing, it doesn't work. We all know that the mom isn't constantly saying the same thing, but that the writer means "My mom often tells me to go to bed earlier." Likewise, he hasn't wanted to be a fashion designer since the Big Bang, but means "For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to be a fashion designer." As for never, unless you can be absolutely sure that something has never, ever, ever happened, well… Clearly, the shorthand of always or never works in casual speech, but not in writing.

When I point this problem out to my college students, they look perplexed, because they're fairly sure they haven't used always or never. That's how common the words are; they don't even register anymore. But once I ask them to proof their paper (or switch papers and proof them), they quickly see the problem and can fix it. If your students work on laptops, send them on a "Find" function!

Many a Mistake

Here's another common student mistake: abusing many. Do these sound familiar?

"Many people consider the Yankees to be the best baseball team."

"Many people love to watch NBC's one-hour drama ‘Smash.'"

The problem here is that the group being written about is not specified, making the sentence impossible to pin down. Does the first writer mean that in the New York City tri-state area, many people consider the Yankees to be the best baseball team? Or in New York itself? Or in, God forbid, Atlanta? As for those people who love to watch "Smash," does that mean that many of the people who watch television on Saturday nights love to watch the show? Or who?

Many has the connotation of more than half, so I can write, "Many of my students appreciated the snow day" when I am sure that more than half of the class was appreciative. The word doesn't work otherwise.

Your students have two choices. They can eliminate the many altogether, or, if they feel confident about whom they're writing about, they can narrow the sentence's parameters. So, the above become:

"In New York City, many people consider the Yankees to be the best baseball team." (Don't flip out, Mets fans, it's a fair statement!)

"Fans of musical theatre often love to watch ‘Smash.'"

Notice how often slipped in there? It's a better word for many.

Mostly a Question of Percentages

"Most people hate to wash their cars."

"Most students want to be able to leave the school for lunch."

Most presents similar problems to many, but is even more strict in how it can be used. The bare minimum in mathematical terms is at least 51%, and, personally, I'd prefer to only make use of it when we're heading towards 70% or higher. That's safely in the most range to me. Encourage your students to fix up their use of most in a way that's similar to how they fixed many. Either narrow the sentence's parameters or eliminate the most completely:

"Almost everyone I know hates to wash his or her car."

OK, that works. That's a parameter the writer can claim expertise in.

"Some students want to be able to leave the school for lunch." Unless the majority is clear — by commonly shared sentiment, recent school poll or obvious signs such as an empty lunchroom — it's better to dial down most to some.

Something? What Thing?

There are several different grammatical mishaps that something can land your students in, but for the purposes of this article, I'm only concerned with something as a word of extreme vagueness. Here's a couple of examples:

"The popularity of the movie Iron Man has done something to our culture."

"Something stood out to me at the science fair."

None of the above sentences are horrible train wrecks, but they are what I call "place-holding language." It's pretty clear that the next sentence is going to deliver the goods, so these sentences are just taking up space. The first one probably looks something like this in context:

"The popularity of the movie Iron Man has done something to our culture. It's brought forth an interest in the vulnerability of superheroes."

And the second:

"Something stood out to me at the science fair. I noticed right away that there was a green ooze seeping out of the closet closest to the entrance."

In both cases, the best way to get rid of the vague something is to rewrite the sentence:

"The movie Iron Man has brought forth an interest in the vulnerability of superheroes to our culture."

"Upon arriving at the science fair, I noticed right away that there was a green ooze seeping out of the closet closest to the entrance."

See? You don't need something.

There are certainly times when the something is vital — I, for one, do not want to take it away from James Taylor's "Something in the Way She Moves" — but often (yes, often!) it is not. Have your students do a check to see.

You might split these quick little revising tips into two classes. It's a bit much for young writers to take on all at once, and I find that the something issue is a bit more complex than the first four words. But, no matter how you set it up, giving your students more tools to become better writers is a gift. You're improving their work and helping them learn to do so on their own in the future — such as when they get to a class like mine during their freshman year of college!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.