flotsam phrase (language)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

flotsam phrase
Another name for flotsam phrase is deadwood. (MadCircles/Getty Images)


Flotsam phrase is a term coined by lawyer and lexicographer Bryan A. Garner for an expression that "just take[s] up space without adding to the meaning of a sentence." Also known as deadwood and empty phrase.

Writing that is clear and concise has no room for flotsam phrases.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "[T]here is usually no reason, where it is clear whose opinion is being expressed, to write In my opinion or It seems to me that. Other examples are hereby, in terms of, on a . . . basis, my sense is that, in the first instance, and the fact that. (Admittedly, some of these phrases may be useful in speech.) A favorite flotsam phrase of lawyers in their pleadings is at all relevant times: 'At all relevant times, he owned shares in the Citi New York Tax Free Reserves Fund.' Halebian v. Berv, 590 F3d.195. 199 (2d Cir.2009). We have enough written words without these mere space fillers."
    (Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Dictionary of Legal Usage, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2011)
  • "Needless to say I have some unusual habits, yet all these socially acceptable people can't wait to pick up hammers and smash their food to bits. Normal people are so hostile."
    (Michael C. Hall as Dexter in Dexter, 2006)
  • "Homer Simpson, for causing a panic in a bank, I hereby sentence you to 100 hours of community service."
    (Judge Constance Harm, "Chief of Hearts." The Simpsons, 2010)
  • "The case of. This flotsam phrase is almost always best omitted. . . .

    "Fact of the matter. This flotsam phrase occasionally serves well in speech--to fill up space while the speaker thinks of what to say next--but generally has no justification in writing. . . .

    "for all intents and purposes; to all intents and purposes . . .. Either form . . . often qualifies as a flotsam phrase."
    (Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford University Press, 2009)
  • "Salvaging is saving, in a manner of speaking."
    (Mackenzie Crook as Ragetti in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, 2006)
  • "[E]arnest consideration is a hackneyed phrase, often a business cliché, dating from the late 19th century and now used mainly in formal contexts, as We are in recepit of your complaint and will give the matter our earnest consideration. This is rather a meaningless phrase since the consideration given is likely to be no less perfunctory than any other, only holding out the promise of this as a placatory gesture."
    (Betty Kirkpatrick, Clichés: Over 1500 Phrases Explored and Explained. Macmillan, 1996)
  • "Empty phrases clutter sentences without adding meaning. I believe, in my opinion, and for the purpose of are examples of empty phrases. The meaning behind those phrases is usually implied, so you do not need to use them when you write."
    (Thomas L. Means, Business Communications, 2nd ed. South-Western, Cengage Learning, 2010)