Firstly, what are dead words and phrases?

The definition favoured by English teachers is words that are overused. A few examples commonly cited with some of their more creative alternatives:


Then: first, later, meanwhile

Good: fine, splendid, marvellous

Lots: plenty, scores, numerous, many

Like: such as, for example, similarly

Also: too, as well as

Have to: need to, must

Very: truly, fully, severely

When teaching children to write creatively, this definition of dead or overused words encourages them to look beyond the obvious to add colour, drama, humour or excitement to their writing. For that is the secret of creativity.

Compare these two sentences:

“Jake clasped her hand and said, “I love you and want you to marry me.”

“Jake took her hand gently in his and stammered, I-I love you and want you to m-marry me.

There’s no doubt that the second version would be received more favourably by the average English teacher and rightly so.

But dead words and phrases in business communications include those that are unnecessary to make the point quickly and clearly. While school teachers urge their students to use more and different words to create an interesting visual impression, in business writing we encourage the opposite.

How the opposite technique works in business.

Review these examples:

I was late for work due to the fact that there was a massive gridlock on the highway.

I was late to work due to a gridlock on the highway.

The meaning is the same but one is six words longer than the other. The first sentence is made slow and clumsy by the dead words the fact that there was and massive.

How about these:

“With regard to the parking allocations, I have assigned bay number 7 to Mr Stephens.”

“Parking bay 7: Mr Stephens.”

The meaning remains the same but, relieved of its burden of dead words according to our definition, the point is made more efficiently.

And it is the clear, concise and efficient delivery of important information that defines the art of business communication.

In business, we overuse words too.

These words have been so abused they have become meaningless or have lost most of their impact value. Many have migrated into written English from lazy casual speech or old-fashioned business language.

Words like basically, factually, totally, actually, frankly, firstly and essentially have no influence on the meaning of a sentence in most cases, and can be discarded.

Another example:

At this point in time, there is no justification for further expansion.

There is no justification for expansion now.

If the writer is referring to a project that was recently expanded, the qualifier further, additional or extra may be necessary to make sure the intended meaning is clear.

When writing emails, presentations, reports and reviews, briefs and so on, spend almost as much time editing out unnecessary content as you did writing it.

There’s a vital role that creative writing plays in our lives but, unless you’re writing an advertising campaign or an industrial theatre script, it’s not recommended for good business practice.

How to keep your writing lively and alive.

  • Keep it short. Learn from poets, songwriters and speechwriters. The good ones toss out every word that doesn’t add value to the whole piece.
  • Vary the length of your sentences. If you read one of your sentences aloud and you’re forced to take a breath, it’s too long. Even a one word sentence can be good. Honestly.
  • Only write in the active tense where possible. Active: Dan has asked for a meeting. Passive: A meeting has been requested by Dan.
  • Use words that suggest activity. In the first sentence we could have said, “The good ones omit…” That’s passive. To toss out implies a positive action.
  • Don’t go looking for a long or obscure word when short ones will do. For example, ‘collocutor’ means a person engaged in conversation with you. ‘The person I’m talking to’ is longer but immediately understood.

None of us is born a good communicator. You can only become one by continuously practicing, planning, editing and revising your work. The reward is greater efficiency, more productivity and the admiration of your colleagues.

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