Most people are unaware of their own verbal tics. While we know to look out for fillers like “uh,” “um,” “like,” even “you know,” sometimes less generic stand-ins seep into our vocabulary and stick. These words can become so ingrained in our speech patterns, they become like verbal fingerprints. Remember when you mocked your sister mercilessly for using the word “frankly” (Did she just step off the set of Gone With the Wind? or something?) only to realize — to your horror — that you had started to use the word too?
Slate recently published an article about these “fingerprint words,” how they come about and how they spread. Sadly, using someone else’s fingerprint word can make you seem like a follower (even if you’re totally not). Perhaps even worse is when other people start using your fingerprint word and don’t realize where it came from. (Chris Traegar is literally beside himself that literally everyone has been using the word “literally.”) But there is something to be said for having an unusual word in your vocabulary that identifies the speech as yours. You’re unique, and your speech is too!
How do fingerprint words factor into your college essay? Most of the time words that are recycled in language so often they can be classified as verbal tics don’t add anything to the meaning or impact of your thoughts, both in speech and in writing. Be cognizant of this when you read over your essay. If you can lose those fingerprint words in favor of simplicity and directness, do it. You may not know you have a fingerprint word, but you’ll realize it quickly when you proofread. So don’t skip that step!