Always (or almost always) avoid

Note that . . . Interestingly . . . Obviously . . . It is clear that . . . It is interesting to note that . . . very . . . quite . . . of course . . . Notice that . . .

I’m sure there are many more that I’ve forgotten. Most of youall probably know about most of these, but I don’t know that many people know to avoid “very.”

17 thoughts on “Always (or almost always) avoid

  1. Past experience suggests that human kind will pursue a relentless march towards butchering the entire English language for the short term gain of differentiation. "Management" needs to take responsibility for every item now being a "challenge" as opposed to say a problem, or an issue.

    While early adopters will not continue to use the language you note, in 10 years the phrases and terms in use now will replace those on the list.

    My biggest gripe is the liberal use of "significant". Results are statistically significant depending on the type of testing procedure you choose. The result can rarely be called "significant".

  2. These are things to avoid – what about positive examples of good descriptions?

    Reminds me of a bit in Taylor (1999) on how mathematical proofs are often written: "… for reasons of space, it is usual to present a long argument as running text, divided into paragraphs and sentences to indicate milestones in our progress. Arguments of of this form are hardly literary prose, and we save hence, thence and whence from the grammatical graveyard simply to avoid the monotony of therefore."

    Taylor, P. (1999). Practical Foundations of Mathematics. Cambridge University Press.

  3. Positive examples (mostly just required for clarity):

    "At the same time"
    "It follows that"
    "In contrast"

  4. I use "Note that…" quite a bit. What's wrong with it, and can you suggest alternatives?

    (Note that I'm not a native speaker, so I'm always grateful for suggestions.)

  5. About 90% of the time, the above phrases can simply be cut completely. The other 10% of the time, I would need to rewrite the sentence, which I don't always bother doing. In answer to Lemmus's question: I think that I've successfully removed "Note that" 100% of the time. Simple deletion does the trick. ^H is your friend.

  6. I feel there is no place for "I feel" or "I believe" in technical writing. It is clear that technical papers should assert or conjecture, not waffle around in the middle. Obviously, they shouldn't state the obvious .

    Note that blogs, of course, are very different in that they are quite informal.

    It is interesting to note that with a thesaurus and basic grammar, an innovative grad student will quite easily defeat any list-based bad-usage filter.

  7. "Omit needless words" is classic advice, and usually nearer right than wrong (if not circular). However, extremely condensed writing shorn of all padding can be very difficult to read, as it obliges you to read at a very different pace. That is, we tend to expect a certain amount of padding.

    Some may remember the programming language APL which encouraged extreme brevity, so much so that many worked really hard to achieve one-line programs, which were usually ingenious but unreadable. The documentation was usually over-condensed to match. APL is no longer much of a force in statistical computing, but many of its ideas were carried over to S and thus R, and the same is true of documentation style.

    "Note that" is not on my hit list. It can signal something incidental or a consequence that might be important, but isn't the main idea.

    "Of course" and "obviously" are on my hit list, as they can carry overtones of superiority. It is especially irritating if what the writer thinks is obvious is to you not even true, let alone obvious.

    I think some advice on writing presumes a homogeneous readership. Many of us write for audiences that are highly diverse, especially in technical expertise, so that there is a real challenge [deliberate word choice] to say something that will be worthwhile to people at several different levels.

    In many fields, including statistics, there is now a prejudice that an introductory text must be about 800 pages long. Some of this indulges different possible choices of material and of exercises, but a lot of it looks like the same stuff said three times, or flim-flam such as photos of nice-looking people smiling and having fun. Are there contemporary examples of much shorter texts covering the key material more concisely? Would they sell? Would any publisher even buy the idea?

  8. Isn't it obvious you should use these very expressions clearly in interesting contexts noted for their precise discord with their quite intended meaning? Of course, then they become entirely non-obvious.

  9. Will do!

    Am I smarter now? I jest. I know those words lead to weak writing.

    Note that I often use "obviously" and "of course" when I feel like the reader knows what I am about to say, but I use it to indicate that I need to see it on the page for the argument to follow. And also, "Note that" is my way of avoiding the red flags of "obviously". I think it is largely a habit built on writing papers for classes. I mean, you know the professor knows it. You feel bad having to say it.

    I guess I will just stop being so apologetic!

    Oh I bet "I mean" is on someone's list! Maybe I shouldn't bet either. Smarter people have bigger vocabularies than "I bet". As a matter of course is it my understand that we should note, most likely, "I mean" is on someones list of phrases that you should not use if you want to be very easily understood in some forceful manner.

    Better! Good amount of words there.

    You know what my pet peeve with writing is? (this is where you say, "No, what?") Everyone notices that often … (oh I did it right there; I used weak words.)

    Someone should add "Everyone notices" to their list! Clearly, if everyone noticed than I would not need to mention. Oops.. Clearly is on the list too!

    So check it out, right. Often … No. "Often" could be bad. Is that on the list yet? I will just get back to you when I figure this English language stuff out.

    Oh true story, this semester I had a professor that liked to put the words "In plain english…". And every time I would mentally smash my head into the desk while lamenting:

    "why why why… why must his questions be so hard! Who speaks plain english! Nobody understands me when I describe my day let alone a statistical result! I never took plain english! I got a 5.5 on the written portion of the GRE and nobody said, 'prepare thyself most for plain english.' … Screwed."

    I had gotten that way because after the first test, I suffered the scathing review of "not really plain english." But in my defense, my plain english involves alot of f'n swearing.

    Apparently, there is english, plain english, written english, academic english, Bush's english, and the Queen's english; and we need to know them all!

    There should be a college course titled "Plain English and its variations without swearing for graduate students." I could put that to good work.

  10. I think that Nick makes some salient points above. To me, the underlying flaw in many over-used transitional or qualifying expressions is the resulting impact on tone (e.g., superiority, smugness) or strength of argument (e.g., hyperbole begs to be shot down). I think reading one's language choices for those qualities is probably a better bet than creating a blacklist of phrases. I also concur that we can't forget the audience. Some of my writing is aimed at an academic audience, and the tone is correspondingly reserved when reporting results. But for other audiences (policymakers, practitioners), part of the job IS helping to emphasize what is interesting, important, useful, or controversial from an applications standpoint when interpreting the results. Sometimes it's a bit of a tightrope to walk.

  11. Nick, Shelby,

    I agree that these rules are not strict. But about 90% of the time you can simply remove these phrases and end up with something more readable. They're the equivalent of "um," "uh," and "y'know" in speech. I'm not saying we have to write like Ernest Hemingway; I'm saying that almost all the technical writing I've seen is full of these empty words and phrases that just clog the presentation and don't help at all.

  12. Non-quantitative quantifiers are pretty meaningless. I write them all over the place, but they are also the first thing to go when I edit.

  13. To complicate matters further:

    Fix on "obviously" as one apparently obnoxious word. Often it is not the word itself, but the tone that is really the culprit. Sometimes you have to listen to the context, here in double quotes.

    How about "obviously", meant apologetically?

    "I realise this step is obvious, but I need to give the complete argument here."

    "I realise this is obvious to most of you, but some of you will be helped by my making this point explicit."

    How about "obviously", meant encouragingly?

    "Steps 1 and 2 were hard work: we had to use some heavy measure theory, which is not to most people's tastes. But Step 3 is just elementary calculus. You can relax a bit."

    "All we using here is the fact that the density integrates to 1."

    P.S. I would add "rather" and "somewhat" to a list of words to be avoided.

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