Last weekend, I visited my dad, sister, and her family to celebrate Christmas a bit early. Among the presents I received was Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, which I have coveted for some time but have never ponied up and bought for myself. For a word nerd, owning a book like this is roughly equivalent to a sports fan’s owning a bunch of extra sports channels on TV. The book reads, not surprisingly, essentially like a dictionary, and it comes complete with guide words at the tops of the pages and thousands of entries about things ranging from the fact that “incommunicative” is a needless variant of “uncommunicative” to the proper pronunciation of “pubes.” If there’s a usage problem for which you can never remember the rule, chances are very good that this book covers it.
I promise I’ll try not to pull my posts straight from Garner’s book every week (it’ll be difficult!). Today, though, I can’t resist, and I hereby give you Garner’s entry on “flotsam phrases”:
FLOTSAM PHRASES just take up space without adding to the meaning of a sentence. Thus there is usually no reason, where it is clear whose opinion is being expressed, to write In my opinion or It seems to me that. Other examples are in terms of, on a . . . basis, my sense is that, in the first instance, the fact of the matter, and the fact that. (Admittedly, some of these phrases may be useful in speech.) We have enough written words without these mere space-fillers.
I often catch myself using variations on “it seems that,” and I guess I do it in an effort to distance myself from an opinion. I should write with more conviction! Are you guilty of using flotsam phrases too?
Another of Garner’s usage books that seems to overlap a lot with this dictionary is available for free at Google Books, and if you have a hopeless case of wordnerditis, you might follow BryanAGarner on Twitter for occasional tips and quips.