Basically, we have to get back to basics.

One of the most brilliant people I know had the worst adverb overuse problem I’ve encountered. He was a “basically” addict. He used basically in about 70% of his sentences, sometimes twice in the same sentence. As with most adverb overusers, he was especially prone to this habit when he was somewhat nervous, speaking in front of a large audience. His most memorable line was, “Basically, we have to get back to basics.” This sort of speaking and writing problem does not indicate a lack of intelligence or experience. It is simply a bad habit that even the smartest, most articulate among us can pick up without realizing it.

I wasn’t the only person to notice my colleague’s annoying speech habit. It was his well-known, annoying tic, although nobody wanted to confront him with it because he was a very senior executive. In one meeting, another colleague offered to bet me a lunch on the over-under for the number of times this guy (our boss at the time) would say basically in our two-hour staff meeting. (An over-under bet is a 50-50 proposition where you pick a number so that the outcome of an event is equally likely to be higher or lower.)

I estimated that our boss would talk for about half the meeting and probably use basically once or twice each minute. I computed that 90 was about the right betting line. My colleague took the overs without even thinking about it—he was even more cynical than I was. And also a bit of a cheater. We started keeping a tally, and in the first 60 minutes the boss used basically 45 times. That made 90 look like a fair guess. As my colleague started worrying about his bet, he began asking short questions that prompted longwinded responses. This kept the boss talking, chalking up more and more opportunities to say basically this, and basically that. I lost big as the outcome finished somewhere north of 120. (My colleague and I didn’t get much out of that staff meeting!)

Do you want your audience—no matter who they are—to focus on such trivial distractions? Again, these adverb-abuse problems are not the bane of the illiterate. They can surface in some very intelligent, well-educated, and accomplished people. By the way, we confronted our boss, who resolved his bad habit. It took him about a year, and his communications effectiveness improved remarkably.

If you look for impotent adverb abusers, you will notice them. They are everywhere. The best cure for this disease starts with self-awareness. Someone needs to club you over the head and let you know that you are one of them. Caution: it is not an easy habit to eliminate, but it will help the fluidity of your writing/speech and the lesson in self-awareness is invaluable for other more important improvements.

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