There’s a letter from Jerry Seinfeld in today’s New York Times. He’s not promoting Stand Up for the Cure, nor does he mention his new(ish) web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Instead, he’s writing in defense of the word really.
Seinfeld is responding to a critic who argues
The derisive “Really?” is a cop-out word, for television characters and real people. It relieves the user of having to clarify his own position or approach new ideas with genuine curiosity.
This use of the word, Seinfeld concedes, is “a little lazy” when “used in scripted media. . . . But in conversation it is fun to say.” To illustrate, he adds
I did a “Saturday Night Live Weekend Update” segment titled “Really!?!” with Seth Meyers a few years ago. It was a blast and the audience loved it.
Your example with the girl in the office and the bad clothes? It is definitely much more fun to look at her and just say, “Really?” than to actually talk about the stupid outfit. Really, it is.
I agree. I use really in conversation all the time, both to mock my friends and for emphasis. For example, “I really like the band Radiohead”; or, “I really like Kansas City BBQ.” Given the context and content–informal speech–this is fine.
But in writing, you can’t hear the tone and volume of my voice. You can’t pick up on other non-verbal cues that might help you understand to what degree I really like X thing. Have you ever tried reading a transcript of one of the “Really!?!” segments on SNL? It’s not as funny. Trust me.
In writing, words like really, very, and sure (e.g., “That sure is a nice watch.”) are generally filler. They make your writing (and by extension, your ideas) feel rushed, and they typically don’t express anything meaningful. If you were to advise a client that she should “really think about investing in AAPL,” what does that even mean?
I would try to banish these empty words from your business writing–much like you do with contractions–unless the context is informal (some email? blog posts?). Other intensifiers such as so and very are similarly misused, and I can recommend using them only sparingly, if at all.
Chances are, you’re selling yourself short if you rely on these intensifiers to add meaning to your writing. Really.