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 PHRASESΒ 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 opinionΒ 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.Β 

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.

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  1. It seems to me that I lean quite heavily on ‘it seems to me’. I guess I don’t want to portray myself as an authority instead of just another dumb blogger like I am.


  2. As a writer, I have two phrases that I’ve noticed signal flotsam to me: But and And. Yes, I know they aren’t phrases. I’ve noticed if I start a sentence with either of those words, what I am really doing is breaking one thought into two sentences. I will automatically be sending flotsam my readers’ way. When I see But or And at the beginning, I rewrite both sentences into a shorter and more cohesive sentence.


  3. Creative writing is filling in space. When this is done properly it’s suppose to reinforce the theme or point being made. The writer might use what I understand to be called flotsam in order to remind the reader of details from the past and so on.


  4. You say: “I often catch myself using variations on β€œit seems that,” and I guess I do it in an effort to distance myself from an opinion. I should write with more conviction!”

    Perhaps. But perhaps doing so demonstrates that you are OPEN to listening to other viewpoints and opinions.

    If we always write “with conviction” . . . we broadcast to readers that we are in a TELLING mode, rather than occupying a SHARING and EXCHANGING of OPINION mode. πŸ˜€


    1. Yep, I think it definitely depends on the type of writing you’re doing. In persuasive writing, at least, it seems (heh heh) safe to say that you can avoid flotsam. I think the idea here is to catch yourself when using filler words when they’re not really needed, though the phrases Garner points out are often useful.


    2. As an attorney, giving a persuasive closing argument, I avoided ALL equivocation.

      NEVER “I believe the defendant is guilty.”
      NOR “In my opinion, the defendant should rot in jail.”

      ALWAYS . . . “The defendant IS guilty and should rot in jail. Please see that he does.” πŸ˜‰


      1. That depends on which side of the case I’m on.

        The plaintiff has ALLEGED that my client acted in a careless and reckless manner . . . but those allegations have NOT been substantiated by the evidence presented in this case. My client acted AT ALL TIMES with an abundance of care and caution . . . the epitome of a “reasonable man. He is entitled to a verdict in his favor . . .


  5. Thank you for pointing this out. I believe a little flotsam here and there, used sparingly, softens a commentary or opinion. It may help render the voice seem humble but wise, or harmless (I will not bite your head off!) but knowledgeable or thoughtful.

    Emphasis on “sparingly.”


  6. It is not always a bad thing.

    When it comes to scientific papers for example “seems to suggest” is a must. Science is evidence based and even when the evidence is conclusive you need to leave enough room to consider that some of your data might be erroneous or your conclusions faulty. You need to have enough confidence in your methods while being aware of the potential for error.

    As a fiction writer, such phrases sit better in dialogue than in narrative.


  7. Thanks for the great tips. I enjoy your blog. Two things: (1) In Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style,” they also prefer “however” being in the middle of a sentence. (2) As a former reporter, the Associated Press Stylebook, says “allege” must be used with great care. It should be used to specify the source of an allegation. In a criminal case, it should be an arrest record, an indictment or the statement of a public official connected with the case.” **”Do not use “alleged” to describe an event that is know to have occurred, when the dispute is over who participated in it.”**


    1. I find that “alleged” is used many times with some sarcastic implication. Similar to when folks say “quote, unquote…” Used less often, and not as heavily coated in sarcasm as the latter. The first also usually means that the user probably holds some type of prejudicial view on what is being talked about as well.


      1. Agreed. I believe it’s also used in the mistaken belief that the person can avoid libel or a lawsuit. It gets kind of silly, sometimes, when news types say “police allegedly said.” Well, if that’s your source, then police either did or did not.


  8. FLOTSAM PHRASES are often made by Flotsam people who can talk the hind leg off a donkey.You smile and look at them then suddenly a glazed look comes over you and you look at the lips moving even you have stopped hearing what they are going on about.Written by Susan Oliver owner of A Fun Gift Shop