It’s safe to say we here at Inkwell’s have been out of grade school for a while now, so when we stumbled across the notion of “dead words,” we were a little confused. A quick search told us everything we needed to know. There are plenty of worksheets for kids in the sixth grade to learn to avoid these “dead words.”

A teacher looks at his class, and most pupils have their hands up to answer the question.
“Get with it!” (Tima Miroshnichenko /

So, what are dead words anyway?

Essentially, they’re words that are used so much in English, they’re effectually “dead.” They’re usually very common words, and students and writers are often cautioned to avoid using them.

Why People Hate Dead Words

Dead words are so commonplace as to be overused in English. Have you ever said a word over and over again in rapid fire succession? It doesn’t take long, but it will stop sounding like a “real” word. This happens to readers as well. If an author repeatedly uses a word (or occasionally a phrase), the reader begins to notice each and every instance.

Even if the author isn’t actually using the term that frequently, it feels like oversaturation to the reader. It’s repetitive, boring, and quite frankly, annoying.

A white man in glasses and a brown sweater looks at a typewriter. He's tossed several sheets away; could he be struggling with dead words?
“Oh, not again.” (Andrea Piacquadio /

“Dead words” taught on school lists are usually ones that can be replaced with so-called stronger words. One of the most common examples is “nice.” About the fourth or fifth grade, students are told to stop using the word “nice” because it’s so overplayed in English.

Instead, they’re asked to think of alternatives, synonyms that contain a little bit more nuance. Is someone nice, or are they lovely? What makes them nice? Are they kind to animals, or are they charming? There are other ways to describe someone that gives the reader even just a smidgen more insight into what you actually mean.

Which Words Are Dead?

Certain words tend to make the list on a regular basis. As already mentioned, most grade-school worksheets tell students to eliminate “nice” from their writing and replace it with a stronger word.

“Very” is another leading candidate, and not without reason. In most cases, “very” is usually followed up by an adjective or an adverb. You might say someone ran “very quickly” or that your friend is “very tall.” These descriptions are wordy and imprecise. Instead of “running quickly,” you could choose a strong verb such as “dashed” or “sprinted,” which conveys the same idea with a single word. Same thing with your tall friend: Is this person gigantic or gargantuan?

Perhaps the most common “dead word” is said. This is particularly important for fiction writers, who may use dialogue tags. (Dialogue tags can be tricky to use, and avoiding overuse is another issue altogether.) If you have a passage where everyone said everything, it can get a little tedious:

He said, “The car is red.”

“It is not,” she said. “It’s purple.”

“I disagree,” the professor said, “it’s a shade of maroon.”

“Are you all daft?” said the graduate student. “It’s clearly burgundy.”

“Are we all talking about the same car? I thought it was indigo,” said another student.

This passage is boring, and it could easily be made a bit more interesting if we dropped a few of those saids:

He said, “The car is red.”

“It is not,” she retorted. “It’s purple.”

“I disagree,” the professor said, “it’s a shade of maroon.”

“Are you all daft?” cried the graduate student. “It’s clearly burgundy.”

“Are we all talking about the same car? I thought it was indigo,” pondered another student.

Bringing Words Back from the Grave

We here at Inkwell’s aren’t grammar extremists. You’ve probably heard things like “eliminate all adverbs” tossed around as good writing advice, and we couldn’t disagree more.

The central argument that adverbs are weak and can often be replaced isn’t a bad one. In fact, we often agree with it. Using a “strong” verb makes for more interesting, concise prose.

But does that mean we need to get rid of all adverbs? We’d disagree with that. If we didn’t need adverbs from time to time, they wouldn’t exist as a class of word in English. It’s as simple as that. And using adverbs can save you from constantly reaching for synonyms and 10-cent words.

A young woman rubs her temples as she looks at an open book. The book she's reading might be giving her a headache because the author used too many big words.
The face of a reader who has had to look up too many words. (Andrea Piacquadio /

This is very clearly the case with dead words like “said.” Sometimes, “said” is perfectly acceptable. It’s true we often overuse it and we should replace it where it makes sense. But if everyone is screaming, yelling, crying, barking, and thundering everything, we have some very cacophonous characters on our hands.

Sometimes, things are just said. And that’s okay.

The same is true with “nice.” Sometimes, something is just plain old nice!

Eliminating Dead Words as an Exercise in Stronger Writing

One way to use this “good writing advice” is to turn it into an exercise aimed at strengthening your writing. While we’re not fond of the extremes, like “eliminate all adverbs” or “avoid dead words 100 percent,” we do think there’s merit in forcing yourself to use other words.

For one thing, you’ll likely realize just how often you use dead words like “said” and “nice.” You’ll also expand your vocabulary and make it easier to reach for those synonyms when you need them. One of the reasons people overuse words like said and nice is because they’re common words and easy to pull out of your memory. When you’re writing, you’ll want to go with something a little more unexpected.

You don’t need to eliminate dead words forever, but doing it for a limited time will force you not to rely on them. Your writing will be stronger for it.

A Handy List

Here’s a quick list we’ve compiled from around the web:

Strengthen Your Writing

Writing advice like “avoid dead words” is intended to strengthen your writing. If you’re looking for more tips, you can check out our blog.