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Eliminating the obviously

2010 November 9
by Helen Keevy

Identifying your weed words

About two months ago I failed the communication component of a mock sports massage assessment. I did fine on the practical side, but not so fine on speaking to my client. Now for some people that might not be so important, but as someone who works with communications daily it felt like a total disaster. Especially when I thought I’d been pretty chatty and done OK.

My exam client was very honest in his appraisal. The treatment was fine, but my use of the word obviously was a problem. He stressed that what for me was obvious might not be for him. My use of the word had created a barrier. It had stopped him from asking questions and at the same time he’d felt patronised.

I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. Am I such an abysmal communicator? Had I really said obviously enough times for it to be such a problem? And then I realised that yes, I most probably had. I just had to listen to myself for a few minutes to realise that.

A single word had been responsible for total communication breakdown.

Obviously is an adverb, a part of speech that some writers condemn as being lazy and unnecessary if care is taken to write thoughtfully. I know that in my writing I have a tendency to overuse it. I consider it one of my weed words – words that I let crop up as I’m writing because I know I’ll go back and strip them out later. I let myself get away with them because they ‘help with the flow’.

But when I’m talking I don’t have the luxury of word weeding. I’d let a lazy writing habit become a damaging spoken tic. I’d used obviously without thought.

On reflection, obviously is just as irritating as the basically, like or I know that many of us use as fillers. And just like these words, I initally assumed that although obviously may be irritating, that my use of it was essentially meaningless. Why would someone get so upset by a filler?

Because it wasn’t meaningless.

I noted that when speaking I used obviously at the beginning of a sentence, as a linking word. When I first tried to understand why I did it, I concluded that it was to try to put people at ease; make them understand that I know that they know what I’m talking about. I used it to avoid being patronising.

Or so I thought.

But was there another reason I had used it? Because I was nervous and slightly unsure in an exam situation, had I used it as stated in a comment on the blog post Obviously. It doesn’t go without sayingto convince my listener of the authenticity of what I was saying and accept it unquestioningly?

Letting my geeky side loose and getting slightly more technical, I discovered that obviously is classified as an adverb of certainty – in the same category as definitely, probably or clearly. And it’s best used in the middle of a sentence according to Swan’s Practical English Usage (e.g. The losing team were obviously unhappy.) I realised that by using it at the beginning of a sentence I’d tried to transform it into a ‘meaningless’ connecting adverb while still trying to hang on to its association with certainty.  Had I tried to be subconsciously cunning and failed? Could I give myself credit for that level of unintentional linguistic manipulation? Either way, it was lazy word usage and it had a very negative impact.  Luckily I  received constructive criticism to alert me to it.

So I’m chalking this event up as a helpful and educational failure. As a writer I know that a sentence can be undermined by a single word. I weigh my words carefully and I consider other options. And I’m now trying to word weed as I’m writing. I’m also trying to take equal care to listen to myself , to slow down and try to edit at least slightly before I speak in professional situations.  If you hear me stating a thoughtless obviously though, please call me on it.

This incident has reminded me the value of constructive criticism, the importance of self-evaluation, and that, as a communications professional, it is crucial to seek honest feedback on your work in all formats.

Anyone else have any examples of weed words that you think fuzzy or sabotage your communications? Or words that you think other writers or speakers use thoughtlessly or for a subconscious reason?

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3 Responses
  1. November 9, 2010

    Great post and very thought-provoking. How many of us rely too heavily on our writing skills without thinking about how we communicate in other ways?

    One of my weed words used to be “we”. I remember rewriting a key piece of collateral and thinking how friendly and approachable we (!) now sounded. My boss came into the office waving a piece of paper and saying, “What’s going on? You’ve weed all over this document!”

    And I often have to do a “however” cull when I’ve finished writing.

  2. November 9, 2010

    Thanks for the feedback Catherine. Hysterical comment from your boss – love it!

    “However” is also another one of mine – and so is “also” come to think of it. Eek!

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