Totally Overworked Words

Uses and Abuses of Qualifiers and Intensifiers in English

awesome - overworked words
"Once, only God could be awesome. Now even a mediocre burrito qualifies" (Erin Moore, That's Not English, 2015). (Brooke Anderson Photography/Getty Images)

Intensifiers and qualifiers really aren't bad words, not at all. Indeed, because they're so brutally overworked, you might actually say they deserve our sympathy.

Why, there's one now: actually. Ernest Gowers once dismissed this "noise" as a "meaningless word" (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage). Actually the word itself isn't meaningless, but when used habitually as verbal filler it rarely adds much to the meaning of a sentence.

Here are a few more awesome words that truly deserve a rest.


It's a fact: the word absolutely has replaced yes as the most common way of expressing affirmation in English. And not just in American English. A few years back, in a column written for The Guardian newspaper in England, Zoe Williams encouraged a ban on the reiterated absolutely:

[P]eople use it to signify agreement. I'll be more precise: when they are agreeing with their friends, they just go "yeah." But when they are playing a game, be it on the telly, the radio, or simply an arguing-game around a domestic table, they suddenly start saying "absolutely." This is fine on the face of it, but I've listened to Radio 4 a lot now, and realized that this usage entails an obligatory repetition. They never just go "absolutely," the buffers. They go "absolutely, absolutely, absolutely, absolutely." No word needs saying four times in a row. Not even a swear word.

What's hard to understand is why the simple and emphatic yes has been supplanted by this multisyllabic adverb.


Though not nearly as annoying as the ubiquitous expressions "just sayin'" and "bottom line," basically is basically an empty qualifier. In The English Language: A User's Guide, Jack Lynch calls it "the written equivalent of 'Um.'"


Not long ago, Canadian humorist Arthur Black wrote an awesome column on the devaluation of an adjective that used to refer to something that inspired awe—the aurora borealis, for instance, or the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, or the Supreme Being.

A grand word, awesome, and it has served us well. But somewhere along the way the word mutated, morphed and bloated into semantic meaninglessness.
This morning in a coffee shop I said “I’ll have a medium coffee, black, please.” “Awesome,” the barista said.
No. No, that’s not awesome. As cups of coffee go, it turned out to be not half bad, but "okay" is several light years from "awesome."
Over the past little while I’ve been informed by, or overheard people affirming that: they’ve purchased an awesome T-shirt, watched an awesome commercial; eaten an awesome hamburger; and met an awesome real estate agent. I’d like to believe that all these experiences were as jaw-droppingly life-altering as the adjective "awesome" implies. But somehow I doubt it.
("Dropping the A-word." The NEWS, June 24, 2014. Rpt. in Paint the Town Black by Arthur Black. Harbour Publishing, 2015)

Linguists tell us that over the past few decades the word awesome has experienced something called semantic shift. But that doesn't mean we have to like it.


This one has been inflating student essays for a very long time. Bryan Garner, author of Garner's Modern American Usage (2009), categorizes very as a weasel word:

This intensifier, which functions as both an adjective and an adverb, surfaces repeatedly in flabby writing. In almost every context in which it appears, its omission would result in at most a negligible loss. And in many contexts the idea would be more powerfully expressed without it.

Obviously. And I mean totally.