10 Phrases You Should Cut from Your Writing
Redundant writing is extremely common today.
Redundancy characterizes text that, in one way or another, presents more than what’s needed to achieve the objective(s) of the writing.
Often, you can spot redundant writing with ease: It comes across as unnecessary, excessive, or repetitive, thereby creating a ‘sluggish’ and frustrating reading experience.
In other cases, redundancy is more difficult to recognize, particularly because redundant phrases are so common in our everyday language.
You should avoid redundancy in your writing because it tends to:
- Annoy, bore, or distract your reader (reducing reader engagement)
- Undermine your claims (threatening the coherency of your writing)
- Make your writing appear amateurish and unrefined (discouraging people from paying attention to what you have to say).
Here are 10 commonly-used redundant phrases you should immediately cut from your writing.
1. ‘Absolutely Certain’
Absolutely: to the fullest extent; in the highest degree; entirely, wholly, utterly; … without doubt, condition, or mental reservation.
Certain: definite, fixed, sure; … established as a truth or fact to be absolutely received, depended, or relied upon; not to be doubted, disputed, or called in question (Oxford English Dictionary)
If you’re certain that x is y (e.g., that you ate breakfast with a friend this morning), then, by definition, you’re absolutely convinced that x is y.
Conceptually, it’s not possible for certainty to contain elements of confusion, doubt, or potential falsehood.
Therefore, drop ‘absolutely’ from ‘absolutely certain’ — you don’t need it.
2. ‘Actual Fact’
Actual: existing in fact, real; carried out, acted in reality
Fact: a thing that has really occurred or is actually the case; a thing certainly known to be a real occurrence or to represent the truth (Oxford English Dictionary)
If something is actually the case, then, by definition, something is factually the case.
(In other words: if x is actually y, then, by definition, x is factually y.)
Using the phrase ‘actual fact’ is akin to using the phrase ‘factual fact’, which is obviously redundant.
Use either ‘actual’ or ‘fact’ — not both at once.
3. ‘Blatantly obvious’
Blatant: glaringly or defiantly conspicuous; palpably prominent or obvious.
Obvious: plain and evident to the mind; perfectly clear or manifest; plainly distinguishable; clearly visible. (Oxford English Dictionary)
It’s neither possible for something to be blatant and not obvious nor obvious and not blatant.
When you use the phrase ‘blatantly obvious’, you’re writing nothing else than ‘obviously obvious’.
Consequently, you should use either ‘blatant’ or ‘obvious’ — not both at the same time.
4. ‘During the course of’
During: throughout the whole continuance of; hence, in the course of, in the time of; … lasting, continuing; while (the thing modified) lasts or lasted (Oxford English Dictionary)
‘During’ refers to the complete sequence of events that occurred within a specified period of time; it captures the full gamut of some process from beginning to end.
The notion of ‘course’ is, thus, already contained within the definition of ‘during’.
The phrase ‘during the course of’ is akin to ‘during the duration of’ or ‘throughout the course of the course of’.
This phrase is very common today (e.g., police officers often say, “during the course of our investigation…” when speaking to the media) and so I don’t expect its usage to drop any time soon.
Technically, though, it’s redundant and, therefore, unnecessary.
5. ‘Future plans’
Future: that is to be, or will be, hereafter; … of or pertaining to time to come
Plan: An organized (and usually detailed) proposal according to which something is to be done; a scheme of action; a strategy; … an intention or ambition for the future (Oxford English Dictionary)
Plans are only ever made for the future, i.e., for moments that have yet to arrive.
When writing about something that remains to be done, drop ‘future’ from ‘future plans’.
The same logic explains why phrases like ‘plan for the future’, ‘plan in advance’, and ‘plan ahead of time’ are redundant and, therefore, should be avoided.
6. ‘Respond back’
Respond: to give as an answer or reply; … to correspond to something (Oxford English Dictionary)
Conceptually, ‘respond’ presupposes:
- A connection between two or more things or people (a relation) and
- The occurrence of some past event that has precipitated (or is precipitating) the occurrence of a second event (a reaction and the passage of time).
It’s only ever possible to respond to some thing or someone and to do so only after some thing or someone has already done or said something (whether or not against or to you directly).
To respond, i.e., to answer or reply, is to ‘get back to’ some thing or someone, to use the common phraseology.
It’s not possible to respond to x without calling/getting/referring back to x.
Thus, use words like ‘answer’, ‘respond’, and ‘reply’ without immediately attaching ‘back’ to them.
Confess: to declare or disclose (something [that] one has kept or allowed to remain secret as being prejudicial or inconvenient to oneself); to acknowledge, own, or admit (a crime, charge, fault, weakness, or the like); … to acknowledge, concede, grant, admit for oneself (Oxford English Dictionary)
You are the only one who can confess something.
Others may accuse you of having done one or more things, but others cannot confess for you or on your behalf.
To confess literally means to personally disclose one or more things about yourself.
Thus, ‘self-confessed’ and related constructions are redundant.
8. ‘Sum total’
Sum: the total amount or quantity, the totality, aggregate, or whole; … to amount to
Total: of, pertaining, or relating to the whole of something; … constituting or comprising a whole (Oxford English Dictionary)
When used together, ‘sum’ and ‘total’ mean the same thing.
It’s neither possible to sum multiple items in a complete set without arriving at a total nor to determine the total amount of multiple items in a complete set without summing them.
As a result, you should use one or the other term in your writing — not both back to back.
9. ‘Protest against’
Protest: to petition, advance a claim; to put forward a protestation; … to make a formal…declaration against a proposal, decision, etc.; to complain, remonstrate; … to express disapproval or dissent; to object to something
Against: expressing motion towards; … expressing motion or action in opposition to someone or something (Oxford English Dictionary)
‘Protest against’ is redundant for the same reason that ‘respond back’ is redundant (cf. above 6.), i.e., the notion of ‘against’ is already contained within the conceptualization of ‘protest’.
By definition, to protest x means to take up and present a position in reaction to x.
Thus, there’s an inherent relationality to the act of protesting: protesting is always a response to — is always done against — some identifiable thing or person.
Therefore, write, “we’re protesting the pipeline expansion this afternoon!” rather than, “we’re protesting against the pipeline expansion this afternoon!”
10. ‘Unexpected surprise’
Unexpected: not expected; unforeseen (Merriam Webster Dictionary)
Surprise: to astonish by unexpectedness; … an unexpected occurrence or event; anything unexpected or astonishing (Oxford English Dictionary)
By definition, a surprise is an unexpected (unforeseen, unpredicted) occurrence.
Both ‘expected surprises’ and ‘surprising expectations’ are logically impossible and non-sensical.
The phrase ‘unexpected surprise’ equates to ‘surprising surprise’, which, of course, is redundant.
There’s no need to attach ‘unexpected’ to ‘surprise’.
Redundant phrases persist in their popularity because:
- We’re so familiar with them. The more they’re used, the less they tend to strike us as odd or misplaced.
- Their use somehow seems naturally appropriate or even necessary in situations that call for emphasis — e.g., “I’m absolutely certain he walked in front of the store last night! Check the security camera footage if you don’t believe me! This isn’t just my opinion; this is actual fact!”
Nevertheless, from both a technical and a conceptual standpoint, you should avoid redundant phrases.
Your goal as a writer ought always to be to write as clearly, coherently, and persuasively as possible. Unnecessary repetition, excessive description, and other forms of redundancy prevent you from achieving this objective.
It may go against the advice you’ve received from others, but, often, the considered use of a few words can actually be far more effective than the clumsy use of ‘flowery’ language.
Choose your words carefully and try to write precisely; your readers will appreciate you for it.
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