Banished Words 2020

Banished Words 2020

Terry Odell

Banished WordsOne of my final editing tasks is removing overused words. I have my list of offenders, and I run the manuscript through SmartEdit, which will find more I was unaware of.

But “overused” can’t be decided based solely on number of uses. It depends on the word.

We all have words and phrases we like to use, often to the point of overuse. Maybe we’re not even aware we’re using them. When we’re writ­ing, they seem to sneak into our man­u­scripts via our fin­gers, as if the brain isn’t involved at all.

Lit­tle words, like “just” and “really” and “well” are com­monly listed among words that don’t add any­thing to the man­u­script other than giv­ing our brains time to catch up with what we’re try­ing to write. They’re the equiv­a­lent of the “um” in speak­ing.

Big “fancy” words, or “unusual” words are in another cat­e­gory. Miasma? Efful­gent? Par­si­mony? They’re going to jump out at a reader, and should be used spar­ingly, per­haps only once or twice in an entire man­u­script. I recall an author using halcyon repeatedly, and it made me stop after the second time.

Recently, one of my critique partners asked about my use of libation, bringing up an important point. How many characters used the term? Often, it’s good to have specific vocabulary words used by specific characters.

While I’m looking at my repeated words, I will check for con­text. Is it dia­logue? Does it enhance the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion? Then, I look to see how long it’s been since the last time I used the word. (There’s that “you’re on page XXX” thing at the bot­tom of Word.)

If it’s a com­mon word, my goal is at least 10 pages between uses. “Medium” words, maybe 30–50 pages. And those big fancy ones? If they’re truly the char­ac­ter speak­ing, and not autho­r­ial intru­sion, once is enough. Not a rule, just something I consider.

And, of course, the caveat that any “fancy” words are appro­pri­ate to the char­ac­ter, the genre, and the time­frame of the book. If you’re read­ing a Regency romance, the lan­guage is going to be totally dif­fer­ent from a contemporary.

There are other words one might want to avoid. Every year, Lake Superior State University publishes its “Banished Words List” of words based on misuse, overuse, and general uselessness. Their list for 2020 contains the following.

Most nominated

  • quid pro quo

Words that attempt to make something more than it is

  • Artisanal
  • Curated
  • Influencer

Words banished for pretentiousness or imprecision

  • Literally
  • I mean
  • Living my best life
  • Mouthfeel

Those darn millennials!

  • Chirp
  • Jelly (Abbreviation of jealous)
  • Totes (Abbreviation of totally)
  • Vibe/vibe check

To see why these were selected, go here.

What about you? Any words that jump out at you when you’re reading, either mundane or unusual?



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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46 thoughts on “Banished Words 2020

    • Koontz is the popular genre king of Latinate and archaic words. My vocabulary of old and huge words is massive because of my background, but he stumped me with a word I spent several years looking for, pre-Internet dictionarires, and never did find. Some of his characters like Odd Thomas are really smart and well-read so the words aren’t out of place, but, dang, he loves big words almost as much as he loves golden retrievers.

      • I have one character in my Blackthorne series who enjoys big words, and it’s explained early on, but most of the rest have vocabularies suited to their experiences. And, I don’t want to stop my readers and make them grab a dictionary.

  1. I find my overused words vary. I seem to get stuck in a different rut with each book. Having said that, So is one of my “um” words. And one of my crit partners likes “anyway.”

    • I haven’t run this manuscript through SmartEdit yet, but given my powers of concentration are lagging, I expect a bushel of new overused words. But I don’t think I have any from this year’s “banish” list.

  2. Thanks, Terry. Good points to keep in mind.

    There seems to be a recent surge of people sitting together “in companionable silence.” Maybe the expression has always been there, but seeing it several times recently has made it jump out at me. Not quite a fad, maybe, but to me it feels like someone used it and then several other authors thought it sounded like a great phrase and used it themselves.

    Now that I feel I’ve done as much as I can on my two WIPs, I need to remember to scan them for over-used words.

    The other good advice from Terry is to check my stories for consistent language/language style for each character.

    • I confess to using companionable silence…but (I hope) never more than once in a book.
      Another common one is characters who release a breath they didn’t know they’d been holding. See that one a lot, (and in my own books) and have tried to refrain from using it now.
      Glad my hints about keeping characters unique helped.

  3. ‘Literally’ is a pet peeve of mine. I reacted to a recent tweet that said, “I implore you put literally an ounce of thought into your actions.”

    Thoughts don’t have weight or quantity. So, literally, it’s impossible to put an ounce of thought into one’s actions. This is a metaphor. To tell people to do this literally is nonsense.

  4. Arching eyebrows, lifting one brow, (and how do you lift just one brow…only knew a handful of people who can do that) rolling eyes…sighing. I think I have someone sighing on every other page. lol I looked for SmartEdit but it only comes for pc users…maybe there’s a comparable for Mac.

    • Didn’t realize SmartEdit didn’t work with Macs, but I’m sure there are other programs that do the same kinds of things. Maybe one of the folks here at TKZ will chime in.
      My son worked a long time perfecting the “Spock” raised eyebrow.
      I have lots of shrugging and nodding in my first pass.

  5. Fun post, Terry.

    Like Karla, I fall in love with a favorite word for each book and can’t shake it. “Regard” is one of my crutches (Andy regarded Sarah), adopted while trying to find alternatives for characters who “look” and “glance” at each other.

    Eyebrows, eye-rolling, nods, and shrugs–can’t get rid of them. They keep sneaking back in.

    When a book club discussed the first book in my series, a member busted me for more than a dozen repetitions of the main character thinking, “What the hell?”

    What version of Smart Edit do you use?

    • People have their go-to expressions (or thoughts) and I don’t mind seeing them as long as they’re restricted to that particular character.
      I use SmartEdit for Word so it’s an add on and I can run checks without leaving my document.

  6. I’m kind of a word geek, so it doesn’t usually bother me if I have to run to the dictionary while reading. However, if it’s every other paragraph…umm, no. (Ran across the word “cleek” the other day-added it to my cool words list.)

    Overused? The word “well”…well, that one jumps on me if I read it over and over. I have to be on guard against that one in my own MSs.

    I try to do a thorough job of cutting prior to sending a MS back to my editor, but she’s better at spotting offending words. In my current project, she scissored the word “percipience”. I liked it…it sounds kind of high-brow, doesn’t it? But contextually, it was all wrong. My MC is a tough, no-nonsense, Marine vet. No way he’d use that word, or even think it.

    *Sigh* I’ve got so much to learn…

    • Yes, we have to make sure we remain true to our characters, including vocabulary.
      I think we’re always learning, Deb. At least I hope so. Sometimes I wonder if readers will know the real meaning of a word I use … “bemused” comes to mind. It doesn’t mean what it looks like, and could be taken the wrong way. And anyone who thinks they know what it means won’t be going to the dictionary.

  7. My two trigger words, these days, are “literally” and “weather-wise” with “reign” instead of “rein” in “rein in” as my most hated metaphoric verb combo. If the local weather reporter was in person, I’d have to fight punching her every time she says “weather-wise.”

    Overused words and descriptions are an easy rut to fall in to for most writers. I used a spelling feature in one of my early word-processing programs to catch them, and boy, there were a lot during my early days of writing.

    Unusual words, phrases, and metaphors aren’t evil if used wisely. Not that long ago, I was reading the end of a novel, and an unusual word jumped out at me like a well-placed landmine. He’s used it once before, and my reader brain had gone past it, then in the second use, the word resonated like hell in sheer awesomeness. Whether his writer brain set that up, or his writer subconscious did, it was masterful, and I’m glad some editor or grammar checker didn’t delete it as being an over-used big word.

    Word repetition has its value in style. Older Southern writers in particular use it. It’s the KING JAMES BIBLE influence. As an example, read some of Martin Luther King, Jr’s speeches to get the rhythm and repetition from the King James BIBLE.

  8. Oh, you bring back some memories of adding “wise” to just about anything. The 60s maybe? Time blurs at my age. My dad loved wordplay, and I remember him having fun with that one.
    On repetition … my first critique group would say, use a word twice and it’s repetition. Use it three times tells the reader you mean it.
    However, not all editors (or readers) took that class!

  9. I’m sorry–I just don’t understand.

    To run with pitchfork and lantern or torch, through the literary and not-so-literary worlds searching for words that irritate me?

    Supposing I need those eye-rolls in one of my characters, a character who lives in New York City where some people hate EVERYTHING that isn’t New York.

    For example, I saw eye rolls in a television program the other night about a train that derails. In that program, one of the characters speaks of his hometown that is not Los Angeles. “That’s a city,” he says. Eye rolls from other characters who are Los Angeles fire fighters: “If you say so,” one of them says, with accompanying smirk. Now I have seen that Angeleno eye roll and smirk so often in my life that I–sorry Mr. Bell–have to resist, uhm, violence against any Angeleno who does it. So, what else would an Angeleno do in making a Los-Angeles-is-so-damned-superior-to-everything-else joke, gesture, or put-down?

    Squint? Fist-thrust upward? Jump up and down? Jumping jacks? No. He would, and does, roll his eyes. It’s in his character, his 49er, Bruin-Traveler heritage.

    So, I would honestly hate to have to discard words that may perfectly well fit my character or my description, even though my use of it may irritate you. (Squint with fist-thrust upward as I jump up and down.)

    • I was thinking sort of the same thing, Jim.

      People shrug and nod all the time. Eye-rolls are maybe less common but frequent. People sob a lot–for sure in crime stories with death and other tragedy. On video we’d see these actions and not think of them as repetitious. So what do we do when writing?

    • I think these are two different, albeit similar, topics. The Banished Words list comes from those who submit suggestions, and my take is that they’re not hunting them down. These are the words that showed up often enough to irritate readers for the reasons given in the link.

      If a word fits a character, by all means use it. You’re in charge. And if a character’s go-to gesture is an eye roll, I have no problem with it showing up–as long as not every character in the book is an eye-roller.

      Each reader will have trigger words that pull them out of the story, and it will vary, obviously, with books. For me, “chunky” and “halcyon” became “Oh no, not again” words in their respective books. In another, a character “heaved a sigh”… nothing wrong with sighing, but always with the heave?

      No, Jim, I’m not recommending you look for them in books you read. They’ll find you. It’s in your own writing that you might want to keep tabs on words that are overused. But you’re the author. You decide what goes on the page.

      • Hi, Mr. Bell. I’m certainly willing to take my lumps, but I still not certain that I agree with the premise here–though I do appreciate Ms Odell’s post, and have digested her arguments.

        • Jim – are you disagreeing with overused words in the manuscript, or the list compiled by Lake Superior University. I probably should have split these into two separate posts, as they are two different animals. Same genus, perhaps, but different species.

  10. Like, wow, you’re harshing my buzz, man!

    Just kidding. By setting my novels in the past (and in first-person) there’s a level of filtering that I probably couldn’t escape if I wanted to. We’ve gotten over the period’s worst excesses (or they’ve become cute). This in spite of the Seventies’ embrace of endless repetition on different levels. (“Today’s top story: Generalissimo Franciso Franco is still dead.”)

    My viewpoint character and her boyfriend have both eaten of the Tree of Dictionary and Thesaurus and their innocent magniloquence is funny, so this chance to overuse words I never get to play with otherwise is like a drug. I wake up in the gutter covered with pages from Jack Vance novels. (His signature overused word was “noncupatory.”)

    In spite of all this, the word I think I may be overusing most is “sad.” I have this sense that emotion words that a two-year-old would understand pack more of a punch than polysyllabic substitutes, so words like “forlorn” and “despondent” and “melancholy” seem pale to me these days. God knows what I’ll think about it a few months from now.

    • Ah, I too wonder what we’re going to be writing as things unfold. So far, I’m sticking to my semi-alternate universe in the current manuscript, but every time my character thinks about keeping her (romantic) distance from the hero, I wonder what readers will think.

      Heck, my critique partner pointed out I’d used “had” 16 times in 4 (short) paragraphs. Any word can jump out at a reader. I never saw them.

  11. Hi Terry,

    This post really hits home, since I’m in the middle of edits for my latest novel.
    “Sort of” and “Of course” are weeds throughout my 1st person POV manuscript. “Nodding” is up next. I use ProWriting Aid on my Mac, which is similar to SmartAid from the looks of it, and can provide very detailed reports.

    • Thanks, Dale. I attended a workshop given by John Sandford where he was talking about the final edit before sending his manuscript to the editor. One word he pointed out as being unnecessary most of the time was “some.” I went back to my wip at that point and culled most of them. The word doesn’t add much.

  12. One thing every character of mine does is “huff out a breath.” I keep hearing the huff whenever someone is annoyed, and can’t think of an alternative, though I’ll worry about that on a later pass.

    One thing writing YA fiction is that high schoolers use way too many fillers in speech. When I’m writing first draft, I keep fighting the fight of faithfully following their speech or cutting out the “well”s and “you know”s and “like”s. I think my success is fifty-fifty; again something to look for later.

    I was halfway through a series, when out of nowhere the author started using “vexed” all the time. After a while, it really started vexing me. (Vexed is another word for annoyed, and it didn’t show up at all in the first two books.)

    • Another thing I picked up on was that authors who publish one, maybe two books a year might use certain phrases which are long forgotten by the time the next book comes out. However, a reader who discovers that author and goes back to read the entire back list one after the other will see them. I recall two characters in bed, with “only the thin cotton of her nightgown between them” showing up in almost every book. Only once in a book, but if you’re reading eight books back to back, you start to notice.

  13. Never again, will I use the word “sweet,” because it is everywhere in the news and other media.

    People have sweet nicknames for their children and each other. They give sweet gifts. They write sweet letters. And they have “sweet reasons” for any number of ordinary activities.

  14. Besides my own foibles, this whole topic made me flash onto William F. Buckley, Jr., who never found a word he didn’t like. His Blackford Oakes thrllers were rife (good word?) with lexical arcanery, to such an extent, often, that I laughed while reading. Certainly stoppers, but what a mind.

    Thanks, Terry, for the list. Mine is terribly mundane. I eschew “feel” or “felt,” or “was” and “is,” as lazy avoidance of creative wordscaping. Okay, I got two red underlines so far, so I’m off the bus.

  15. Thanks for this interesting topic, Terry.

    One phrase I’d like to nominate to the banished words list is “reach out.” People no longer ask, request, touch base, call, get in touch, or contact others. They reach out. Is anybody else bothered by this?

    Someone else mentioned “literally” as a favorite misused word. I heard someone say, “He literally exploded.” I’m doubting it. But the word has been misused so often (and by so many reputable writers) that I’m afraid it will literally come to mean “figuratively!” 😊

    I also use ProWritingAid to check for overused words.

    • Language changes. I’m still fighting ‘alright.’ But I’d hate to see literally turn into figuratively. That’s just … wrong.

  16. There is one phrase I would really, really like to banish. “Reach out”. I have sales reps reach out to their support staff all day long. It is way worse than “circle back”.

    • Okay, gotta reach out, circle back, and get on this bandwagon.

      Since I retired last year from a medical practice, I have not missed-not even a little-the evolving corporatespeak. Reach out and circle back were two phrases that I would “literally” (not really…) gag over in emails. Why the staff up the pay scale from me couldn’t just say, “Yeah, why don’t you call so-and-so and get back to me…”

      So nice to not have to hear that day in and day out…

      Have a great day, TKZers, and let’s keep reaching out and circling back to each other. 🙂 Sorry, couldn’t resist…

  17. Can’t wait to add social distance to this pile.

    In the meantime my top two misused/overused peeves are authentic an exclusive. Authentic, particularly in travel parlance, has seemingly changed meaning from “genuine” to something more akin to muddling with the poor folk. As in, Caitlyn and her man bun sporting bae had the most authentic experience sleeping on the dirt floor of a hut and eating only street food. I find sleeping in a bed and eating in decent restaurants provides me with an equally authentic experience. Different, and more costly, but equally authentic.

    With exclusive, its meaning has changed from an offering limited to one outlet, or something along those lines, to a synonym for expensive. You constantly hear it in this context to the point where its original meaning is buried. Brittany and Geoffrey live in the exclusive Forest of Summer Winds Community. Oh, you mean they bought a house in an expensive (and pretentious) “community” where they have to pay more money for a group of busybodies to tell then what color they can paint their exclusive house? I could buy a house there, too, if I were willing to plunk down that much cash. Exclusive does not mean expensive.

    Don’t know if these qualify for what you’re looking for, but they’re my choices and I’m sticking with them.

    • I’m not looking for anything other than what people think should be nominated for next year’s “Banished” list, or words they think are overused in everyday writing. There’s a difference.

      Honestly with the internet, etc., we’re not “social distancing” we’re “physical distancing.”
      I’d like an authentic experience in that exclusive neighborhood.
      Back in my day “exclusive” in neighborhoods usually meant “restricted”.

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