Why use “completely”?

“Completely” is probably one of the most completely superfluous words in the English language.

Too often, it’s used to emphasize something that is an absolute in itself, like “superfluous.” Something can’t be partly superfluous—the definition of superfluous is “not needed”—so how can something be “completely” superfluous?

Similarly, how can someone be “completely silent”? If you’re silent, you’re not making any noise; the idea of “completely” is built in. Yet journalists love saying that someone is really, truly, completely silent. And how about “completely perfect”? Does that mean “perfectly perfect”? The most obviously redundant usage would be in the phrase “completely unique.”

The problem is that “completely” is a modifier meaning “whole.” If you add it to something that itself is already whole—silence, perfection, superfluity, uniqueness—it doesn’t make it any more whole.

But the opposite is not true; you can take those “whole” words to make them less than whole. Someone can be “nearly silent,” “almost perfect,” or “mostly superfluous,” indicating that they approach completeness, but are not quite there. The same cannot be said for “unique,” which means there’s no other like it. Something can’t be “somewhat unique”; if it’s not one of a kind, it’s not unique.

One of journalism’s favorite “completely” unnecessary phrases is “completely destroyed,” used most often when describing what a fire did to a building. But “destroyed” means the damage was complete. You can say that a building was “partly destroyed” (saving a few letters from “partially destroyed” in the process), but you never need to say it was “completely” destroyed.

No matter how often “completely destroyed” appears and no matter how much you want to argue that it’s idiomatic, that “completely” is still completely excessive. If its use had been excised in news articles for just the past three months, at least 2,000 words would have been saved, according to Nexis. That’s a whole lot of new stories!

If you’re be tempted to replace “completely destroyed” with “decimated,” though, be prepared to argue. As Evan Jenkins wrote here, “decimate” originally meant “to reduce by a tenth,” but has come to mean more along the lines of “to destroy a large part of.” Because, in its original usage, a lot was left standing, some people will argue that something that is “decimated” is only partly destroyed, not “completely” destroyed. (That’s one case where “completely destroyed,” used as a contrast, is OK.) And, whatever you do, don’t use “decimated” with any sort of number or quantities, as in “a fire decimated one-third of the crop.” A lot of people will try to divide a third by 10 percent, and you’ll drive them “completely” batty.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.