Wordsmithing


A few weeks ago I read a suggestion by somebody somewhere to stop saying the word “but”. Much of the time, they said, “and” works instead. This seemed interesting, so I decided to give it a Thirty Day Trial. Now I have mostly removed “but” from my vocabulary, and I intend to keep it that way. I found that I used the word “but” constantly. Stopping using it meant finding another word to use instead. Much of the time “and” does in fact work as well, although it gives its sentence a slightly different flavor. Other times “and” wasn’t what I wanted, so I searched for another substitute – and oftentimes the word I found worked better. I’m somewhat of a language geek (how many people do you know who wanders through their dictionary on purpose?), so I was surprised to find I had been using “but” as a crutch.

In stopping my use of “but” I started paying attention to what I say. I discovered that I use the word “just” a lot as well, and that it seemed to belittle whatever I was talking about. [Please note I am not talking about “just” as a period of time, as in “just now”.] For example, compare and contrast “I just had a piece of pie” with “I had a piece of pie”, or “It was just a dollar” with “It was a dollar”. To me, including “just” is an attempt to downplay having eaten pie or having spent an entire dollar. Why would I want to do that? I was using ithe word unconsciously rather than on purpose. No more.

Another challenge I’ve recently taken up is to stop using intensifiers – to say “It was fun” rather than “It was really fun” for example. That experiment is still in progress; no conclusions yet.

An unexpected side effect of working to remove these words from my speech is that I notice how prevalent they are in other people’s speaking. One person in a documentary I watched recently used “just” in every sentence he said! Charles Petzold’s WPF book is chock-full of “but”-conjoined sentences which I think would be better served by “and”. I have also noticed that, now that I hardly ever say these words, when I do say them they have more effect, both for me and for who I am speaking with.

Perhaps the most important effect, however, is that I am paying more attention to what I say, thinking things through more before I say them. I am choosing better words, speaking more simply, and being understood better. That’s a Whole Pile Of Goodness, that is!


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Comments (5)

  1. Mark Schmidt says:

    Wow, excellent post. Never thought of something like that. I think I’ll start paying more attention to see if I come up with the same conclusions.

  2. Allan Clark says:

    All of us — engineers or not — use many words we don’t need to use, unconsciously or consciously.  Living in China, hearing how English-as-Second-Language speakers speak english, and how they don’t understand our cultural artifacts (Don’t have a cow, man), it has helped me to clean up my language.

    Too many but/and/um in a presentation is disastrous when presenting to ESLs… but to native english-speakers, those words become the only word you hear… see also "chicken chicken" (my URL above).

    Allan

  3. Chris Morris says:

    Try this one: don’t speak in second person when talking about yourself.

    You’re sitting there, listening to someone ramble on in second person, thinking how annoyed you are that they can’t own what it is they’re saying, you just find yourself flummoxed. You know?

    Sorry … I meant, when I’m sitting listening to someone ramble on in second person, it annoys me a bit because I’d rather hear them speak in first person.

  4. adam goucher says:

    Reading this made me immediately think of Johanna Rothman’s recent <a href="http://www.jrothman.com/weblog/2007/04/strengthening-writing.html">post</a&gt; about the same sort of thing.

  5. Jim Bullock says:

    Jerry Weinberg includes "just" in his list of "lullaby language" – language that puts you to sleep. I first learned the rule "substitute ‘and’ for ‘but’" from him also. Don’t know where he got it.

    Then there’s Strunk and White. Try speaking in line with their writing advice. Throw in George Orwell and you’ll perhaps find yourself saying exactly what you mean to say. More interesting to me, by watching my language I discover surprising things I think, and more often surprising times I haven’t actually thought. Good to know.