Monday, April 7, 2014

Qualifiers Weaken Your Sentence

Qualifiers do exactly as their name suggests--they qualify. They put limits on something within a sentence. They're like throwing in a check to the action. This certain thing is happening in a sentence but you want to explain to the reader that's it's not entirely happening. You're qualifying what you wrote.

Ugh. So that's a brain teaser. What the heck does any of that mean?

Qualifiers are words like almost, sometimes, only, very, quite, might, just, enough, maybe, really, a little, less, pretty, and so on. They can also be adverbs like partly, mostly, completely, extremely.

maybe                                   sometimes                                       probably                      just

almost                             partly                                            might                                             often

But what's the problem with that?

Most of the time there's nothing wrong with qualifiers. They're needed and helpful.

It's quite bright out.
The water is too hot.
I"m pretty tired.

But then there's the other side. When qualifiers strip the power from a sentence and make it wishy-washy.

They challenge the validity of your action. Using a qualifier is like throwing up the word 'whoa!' We're charging into the action and then oops, the qualifier stalls you. It makes the sentence weaker--makes the main character less decisive. It steals the thunder from a sentence and leaves you with a paler shadow. Here's an example: 

The rocks crashed down, mostly burying Tootsie under stone.

So she's not completely buried, she's only partly buried? You've qualified the character's suffering and made it less. You've mitigated the action. Let's allow Tootsie to suffer the full jeopardy.

The rocks crashed down, burying Tootsie under stone.

Here's another example of a sort I see over and over:

Jim's broken hand hurt almost as badly as a kick to the balls. 

This qualifies Jim's pain and makes less of it. Why are you being so nice to Jim? An MC has to suffer. Give poor Jim the full effect and to hell with the qualifying. Be bold. Be decisive. Have strong sentences.

Jim's broken hand hurt like a kick to the balls.

Here's a little something I could have used for the title of this post:

Qualifiers might weaken your sentence. 

Obviously every qualifier isn't going to ruin a sentence. But this one might. (hehe!) Which title carries more power, makes a reader more interested? Which title works better? I think you know!

Another culprit that can do the same damage is the word 'seem.' Seem says this could be what's happening, but ... meh ... maybe not. It does the same as a qualifier and robs strength from the sentence.

Peggy seemed to be pale and her skin clammy.

Seemed to be? Don't be a wimp. Give Peggy the full Monty. She deserves to suffer. That's true conflict. That's real urgency.

Peggy was pale and her skin clammy. 

What if the Go Go's said We Sometimes Got the Beat? What if the Beatles said I Often Want to Hold Your Hand? Queen didn't go with We're Sort of the Champions.

Not every qualifier has to go. But if they slow down the action and make your sentences wishy-washy, they're hurting the effectiveness of your writing.

Pick and choose when qualifiers are necessary and when they rob your sentence of punch. 

Got a qualifier confession? Which qualifiers trip you?


  1. Very useful information for every writer! Qualifiers were like little termites in my manuscript, until I was taught how to pick up on them. Thanks for sharing, Michelle.

  2. Excellent points!!! I especially liked the song examples, hilarious and very effective. I can't wait to share with my Bayou Writer's Club. Great job.