When it comes to eclairs, donuts, pies, and calzones, filling is great, but when you get into writing, filling is as unwelcome as a stale sandwich cookie. Whether you’re trying to increase your word count, artificially add fluff, or just trying to sound “smart,” filler words are never a great idea in formal writing. So what are some common filler words that you should generally avoid?
A filler word, also called a discourse marker, is “any word or phrase that is typically meaningless and shoved between words,” literally “filling in” the gaps in communication. This can even include sounds, like any variation on um or uh.
In speech and informal writing, filler words are perfectly harmless and natural, and they can help to maintain a conversational flow. You’ve probably seen a few filler words already while reading this. People have their own unique speech mannerisms and writing styles, and in speech, filler words serve the practical role of letting people think about what they want to say.
In more formal writing, filler words can give the wrong impression. If you’re writing an argumentative essay, using too many filler words might undermine or distract from your argument. Students and professionals alike may use filler words when they need to meet word requirements (in our business, this is known as fluff).
Worse yet, filler words can be a hindrance to your wonderful, amazing thoughts. When you have to write with a word limit, you want every single word to count, so why waste your words with a just or actually?
This is by no means a comprehensive list, and you might find unique filler words in your writing that you lean on a little too much, a little too frequently. The point is to notice these words when you can. Interestingly, a lot of the most common filler words are modifiers for levels of intensity.
One of the top filler killers, just can make sentences sound weak while adding nothing to the meaning. As a modifier, just means “actually, exactly, or very closely,” which isn’t all that helpful or descriptive.
Note that we don’t mean the adjective form of just, meaning “rightful, guided by truth, or fairness.”
- Conversational: I wish he would just walk away.
- Formal: I wish he would walk away.
Very is an adverb that means “extremely or to a high degree.” It’s an easy way to take an adjective to the next level, but it also doesn’t mean a lot. What is the difference between something tasty and very tasty?
- Conversational: Her chocolate chip cookies were very tasty.
- Formal: Her chocolate chip cookies were tasty.
Quite is another adverb that means “completely, actually, or entirely” or “to a considerable degree or extent.” Interestingly, quite might have roots in the Anglo-Norman and Middle French word quittement, meaning “freely, unconditionally, completely.” Unfortunately, today, it’s more equivalent to very or really.
- Conversational: She didn't quite know what to do.
- Formal: She didn't know what to do.
Really is an adverb that means “in reality or actually,” though some people use it similar to very. In both cases, it’s a little useless. The reader can assume that you’re speaking in reality, and as mentioned, you can find other ways of modifying intensity.
- Conversational: Did you really walk the dog?
- Formal: Did you walk the dog?
Literally has gone through some really interesting evolutions in usage. Traditionally, literally means “in the strict or literal sense,” as opposed to figuratively or metaphorically. However, people began to use literally similar to actually or really as a way to add extra emphasis, and that usage eventually became official.
Similar to really in that you don’t need to state that a thing happened in reality, you don’t have to use literally because the reader already assumes that you are talking in literal terms.
- Conversational: When I saw him, I literally thought I was going to faint.
- Formal: When I saw him, I thought I was going to faint.
Actually is the close cousin of literally and really. Actually means “as an actual or existing fact.” In other words, it’s a way to state something that happened in fact or in reality.
- Conversational: Actually, that never happened.
- Formal: That never happened.
Honesty is the best policy, and honestly isn’t a terrible word on its own. It’s an adverb that means “in an honest, sincere, or truthful way,” and it has its uses. For example, maybe you want to speak honestly with your parents about your driving privileges.
However, honestly ends up in the same realm as actually or really as an attempt to add emphasis without any true meaning. Pay special attention to when you use honestly at the beginning of a sentence, which is usually where it feels the most fillerific.
- Conversational: I was honestly surprised that I ate the entire plate of cookies on my own.
- Formal: I was surprised that I ate the entire plate of cookies on my own.
Totally is an adverb that means “entirely or completely.” It’s often used as another intensifier to take an adjective up a notch. Totally also gained a lot of usage in the ‘90s as a standalone interjection that meant that you were wholeheartedly agreeing.
- Conversational: I totally lost my cool when I saw him walk through the door.
- Formal: I lost my cool when I saw him walk through the door.
Absolutely operates in a similar realm as totally. Absolutely means “without exception, without doubt or reservation, completely.” Just like totally, absolutely can also be used as an interjection to show that you fully agree with someone or something.
- Conversational: I will absolutely be sure to get it right next time.
- Formal: I will be sure to get it right next time.
We all need our words associated with uncertainty. Perhaps is an adverb that means “maybe, possibly.” In formal writing, speaking with a sense of surety is necessary to building authority, which perhaps can directly undermine.
- Conversational: Then she realized perhaps they'd never been friends.
- Formal: Then she realized they'd never been friends.
Simply is another modifier that has gone through some fascinating changes. It means “easily or in a simple manner,” “plainly,” or “ merely or only.” It took a leap in usage thanks to The Lord of the Rings line “One does not simply walk into Mordor” and its ensuing meme-age.
Simply took another step in popularity thanks to the “I Would Simply” snowclone. That initially started with a tweet from the user @prawn_meat in 2017 that read “if i ever fell in some quicksand i would simply thrash around until i was out. it's that simple.” The idea with this snowclone is stating a seemingly easy solution that would actually require a ton of effort. For example, if I wanted to win a basketball game, I would simply score more baskets than the opposing team.
It’s a fun way to illustrate the main problem with simply as a filler word. Aside from being extraneous, the idea of what is or is not simple is relative.
- Conversational: I simply didn't know how to respond to that.
- Formal: I didn't know how to respond to that.
Only certainly has its place in writing. You need a word to describe people without siblings or roads reserved for buses. However, the more common usage of only, meaning “no more than or merely,” tends to work interchangeably with just, so use some discretion with it.
- Conversational: I only got here ten minutes ago.
- Formal: I got here ten minutes ago.
Like was popularized as a filler word by Valley Girls and other Californians. Today, it’s become something of a universal filler word. It’ll come up more often in spoken conversations and is in the same world as uh or um.
While it has a few different meanings, like is typically used as a preposition meaning “having the same characteristics as; similar to.” You’ll see this most often as a simile. Like can also appear as an adverb meaning “nearly or approximately”. The intersection of those two meanings is where most people end up using like as a filler.
- Conversational: I’m like tired all the time these days.
- Formal: I’m tired all the time these days.
Some fillers come in the form of multi-word phrases. Just because these appear as more than one word doesn’t suddenly make them okay. If anything, these are worse because they take up even more space.
It’s hard to pinpoint where or when this phrase gained popularity, but it acts as a wordier (and clunkier) synonym for because. Due to works fine as it means “because of, on account of, or as a result of,” but the fact that adds an extra modifier that doesn’t add much to your writing.
- Conversational: She had to order a pizza due to the fact that the burger place closed early.
- Formal: She had to order a pizza because the burger place closed early.
Historically, in order to was a phrase that meant “with regard to or in reference to” and “for the purpose of.” Those definitions are now obsolete, replaced by the definition “to do or achieve some outcome.” While that sounds like a great phrase, most instances of in order to can be replaced with a simple to.
- Conversational: She went upstairs in order to pack her suitcase.
- Formal: She went upstairs to pack her suitcase.
This phrase almost immediately creates a sense of scholarly or scientific importance, but when you boil down the fact of the matter, you get “the truth.” The fact of the matter is that the fact of the matter is serves the same role as actually and other similar filler words. You can stretch a filler word out as much as you want. It’s still a filler word.
- Conversational: The fact of the matter is I am not a fan of mushrooms.
- Formal: I am not a fan of mushrooms.
Filler words aren’t “bad.” They just have a time and a place. Knowing when it’s okay to use them (conversations and casual writing) and when not to (any formal writing) is a big part of keeping filler words to a minimum. Otherwise, how do you avoid filler words in your perfectly penned essays?
As mentioned, the vast majority of filler words consist of intensifiers. These are words that modify the intensity of a word, including very, quite, and really.
- The teacher was quite helpful.
- The teacher was helpful.
- He was very troubled by the current situation.
- He was troubled by the current situation.
- The coffee cup was really hot.
- The coffee cup was hot.
If you find yourself using any intensifier (even one that’s not listed here), consider if it’s adding anything or achieving what you’re hoping for. If not, you might want to …
A thesaurus is an invaluable tool, especially when it comes to intensifiers. In the example of the very tasty cookie, you might be better served using your handy thesaurus to find a word like:
Sometimes an adverb and an adjective aren’t satisfying enough. Some things deserve an extra level of specific, descriptive writing.
For example, if you really want to get across the tastiness of that cookie, you could use details to describe the melty chocolate, crunchy crust, and gooey center.
- Her chocolate chip cookies were very tasty.
- Her chocolate chip cookies had the perfect balance of sweet, salty, and bitter. The firm outer crust gave way to the melty, buttery center, made only better by the thick chunks of dark chocolate that had melted into the dough.