A super suggestion for the linguistically lazy

“Super” is a super word. Well, it’s really more of a prefix. It’s Latin for “above,” which is why the superstructure of a ship or a building is on top rather than down in the bilge or the basement. We also use “super” in a figurative sense of higher rank, which is why people in charge of things are called supervisors and superintendents. This election year, there has been a lot of talk about superdelegates and superPACs. From there it’s only a short hop to using “super” to mean “very.” When I had a super long commute I had to get up super early, and by the time I got home I was super tired.

If that last sentence seemed super lame, you have recognized the topic of today’s sermon. Even a super words can detract from your writing if you use it too often. Right now, “super” is in vogue. I’m writing this at about 10 a.m., and already today I have encountered references to a super high tax rate, living somewhere super lovely, a recipe for a super basic cookie, statistical results that were super weird, and a candidate who is super super left. Which is even more left than super left.

Maybe “super” isn’t one of your default words. But you probably have others. Most of us do. They are the words we use automatically because thinking up a better word would distract us from the fantastic point we are trying to make.

That in itself isn’t bad. When you are getting your brilliance down on paper or on the computer screen, you should stay focused. But once the idea is in place, it’s time to make a cleanup pass. If you know your bad habits, seek out your default words and sprinkle in some substitutes. In fact, anytime you see the same word over and over, you should give it a critical eye.

You can go too far in the opposite direction, of course. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using a word more than once, especially if it’s integral to your subject. If you are writing about a baseball game, you can call the ball a ball all the way through. You don’t need to call it a spheroid, a globe, an orb, a pellet, or a projectile. That bad habit, called “elegant variation,” draws attention to your vocabulary rather than to the subject of the game.

So sometimes you should stick with a word, and sometimes you should add variety. How to tell the difference? If you are using a variety of words to express nuance and go deeper into your idea, you are probably on the right track. If you are using synonyms because you think you have to, you can probably relax and put the thesaurus away.

Got it? Super.


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