Do you use too many sticky words?

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Sometimes, being “sticky” is a desirable trait. At other times, it’s a bad idea. Here’s how to figure out if you’re using too many sticky words….

Ever since Chip and Dan Heath wrote the 2007 bestselling book Made to Stick, many of us have seen the word “sticky” as a compliment. “What a sticky idea,” we might say with delight, indicating the idea is powerful, compelling and memorable. The correct synonym for sticky is, clearly, “unforgettable.”

But today I’m going to ask you to turn that concept on its head. Think back to when “sticky” meant a toddler’s fingers after eating a caramel-crunch ice cream cone. Or a preteen’s fingers after prying a piece of bubblegum off the underside of a desk. Or your own fingers after accidentally finding some pitch on a tree or a branch. In all of those cases, “sticky” is a messy, uncomfortable sensation — one you’d likely prefer to avoid.

But did you know you can also apply the label “sticky” to some of the words in the sentences you write? Also known as “glue words,” these are the empty spaces that readers must push themselves through before they can get to your ideas. Visualize your readers as people trying to cross a kitchen floor marred by semi-dried blobs of ketchup, spilled milk or soda and squirts of honey. The more spills on the floor, the harder it is for them to get across without getting their feet mucky.

Here is a partial list of sticky words:

  • So
  • If
  • Than
  • But
  • About
  • In
  • On
  • The
  • Was
  • For
  • That
  • Said
  • A
  • Of
  • To there
  • Will
  • Be
  • What
  • Get
  • Go
  • Think
  • Just
  • Every

The concept of “glue words” is usually credited to Richard C. Wydick, a retired professor of law at the University of California, Davis. His book, Plain English for Lawyers —now in its fifth edition— has been a favorite of law students, legal writing teachers, lawyers, and judges for more than 25 years. Here is how he explains the idea:

“In every English sentence are two kinds of words: working words and glue words. The working words carry the meaning of the sentence. In the preceding sentence, the working words are these: working, words, carry, meaning, and sentence. The others are glue words: the, the, of, and the. The glue words do perform a vital service. They hold the working words together to form a proper, grammatical sentence…. But if the proportion of glue words is too high, that is a symptom of a badly constructed sentence. A well-constructed sentence is like fine cabinetwork. The pieces are cut and shaped to fit together with scarcely any glue.”

Now before you say to me, “but I couldn’t write without any glue words — they’re so common,” notice that no one is proposing you try. Instead, the idea is to minimize them. As Wydick acknowledges, these sticky words perform a vital service.

Ideally, your sentences should contain fewer than 45% glue words. If they contain more, rewrite them to improve their clarity. Here are some examples.

ORIGINAL: Morgan walked over into the second-hand car lot in order to see if there was a car she could buy for getting herself to her new job.

Original sentence length: 27 words

Sticky words: over into, in order, getting herself to

Improved version: Morgan checked the second-hand car lot for a car she could buy to drive to work.

New sentence length: 16 words

ORIGINAL: In regards to tomorrow’s event, the main focus should be on keeping all participants fully engaged and feeling as though they are valued customers.

Original sentence length: 24 words

Sticky words: in regards to, main, as though

Improved version: At tomorrow’s event, we should concentrate on making our customers feel valued.

New sentence length: 12 words

ORIGINAL: Despite what I went through, I want to think outside of the box and make my boss understand how valuable my efforts are to the company.

Original sentence length: 26 words

Sticky words: despite what I went through, outside of the box, my efforts

Improved version: I can use even my difficult experiences to help my boss understand how valuable I am to the company.

New sentence length: 19 words

Sometimes a sentence will only work if it’s sticky. Don’t panic! Having a few sentences like that is okay. Just don’t have too many of them or you’ll slow your readers so much they’ll never cross the kitchen floor — or read to the end of your piece.

How do you identify and eliminate sticky words in your writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Alexey Mitrofanov, the winner of this month’s book prize, Writing to Learn by William Zinsser for a June 13/17 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by July 31/17 will be put into a draw for a copy of Business Writing and Communication, by Kenneth W. Davis. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Posted July 4th, 2017 in Power Writing

  • Ligadema VF

    It’s very interesting, how human’s mind is working. Different languages and the same problems)) I write in Russian and always try to avoid such ‘sticky’ words in my language( they have another name here, not pleasant one). It is the first post I have read on this site, and I already like it 🙂 Thank you, Daphne

    • Glad you liked the post. Out of curiosity, what is the Russian word? (And what is the literal translation?) Your comment that the word is “not a pleasant one” has me very curious!

      • Ligadema VF

        These words have the name ‘слова-паразиты’ in Russian, it means ‘words-parasites’. As I know, you also have the term ‘filler’, words that are used for pauses. In Russian, filler words and sticky words that are used more than it is needed are called the same, – parasites words:)

        • Charles Broming

          I like it–‘parasite words’–they such the life out or your prose!

          • Yes, I really like the phrase “parasite words” as well. So evocative!

  • Madelaine

    Good post, thank you for sharing.

  • Valerie C.

    Thanks, Daphne! I love the visualization of people walking across a “sticky” kitchen floor to maneuver through a piece of writing!

  • Bernardo

    “Omit needless words” (Strunk) Easier said than done, isn’t it? ;o)

    • I met Strunk and White in English 100. That book helped me survive university!

  • pauline buck

    Excellent post and advice that I will take to heart. Thanks Daphne.

  • Suman

    It becomes automatic using glue words writing anything. But we can be aware of it and edit. Thank you for the post.

  • I was tutoing GED hopefulls, when a young High School boy came to my class. He was bright, cheerful, but deathly afraid of writing. He had failed the writing portion of the ACT *and* the SAT miserably. So they sent him to me. I soon realized that his forte was computer technology, so I suggested he sort and label my floppy discs for other students, and then I suggested he go online to write reviews of other software–for pay. He thrived and was moved on to take the GED test before the semester was over. He was thrilled and so was I.

    Can you tell I was inspired by the book giveaway, “Writing to Lean?”

  • Marjorie Turner

    What an excellent post! Thanks for providing the structure to identify excess verbiage and get rid of it. Sharing.

  • Michael F. Tevlin

    I follow other rules, but these have the same effect of concision: 1) Use active voice, 2) eliminate unnecessary words, 3) find a one-word substitute for phrasal nouns (e.g., checked = walked over into), 4) make the main clause carry the most important idea.

    One other thought: I don’t think of these sticky words so much as glue that holds sentences together. Rather, they’re glue that, as you say, gums up the works and gets in the way of the relevant words. What holds sentences together are nouns and verbs.

    • Thanks, Michael. I think “eliminating unnecessary words” is EXACTLY the same as reducing “sticky” words. And I agree with you that they serve as glue that gums up the works. Well put!