I do not use the word clearly.
My avoidance of the word clearly started over a decade ago, when I was working on a screenplay with my friends Niko and Sam. We did not know what we were doing. Like a lot of endeavors into the unknown, we learned as we went. The screenplay remains unfinished, the film unshot, the world we created unrealized. But the one definite thing that happened is we all became better at our crafts—and I became a better writer. And part of becoming a better writer was permanently eschewing the word clearly.
I wrote clearly often in those days. I would regularly assign it to action in the screenplay. Use it to, well, make the action clear. Clarify that someone is clearly agitated, clearly angry, clearly an alien, clearly armed to the teeth, clearly dead.
Then we gave the screenplay to someone to look at. I can’t remember who. We gave it to lots of people to look at. One thing we all knew is that there was a lot we didn’t know.
While a lot of good feedback came from this process, one piece of advice stuck out above the rest and stayed with me. “You use clearly when you don’t need to.”
If the action is clear, there’s no reason to say clearly. If someone is clearly agitated, then they are agitated. Clearly clarifies nothing.
Take at the definition of clearly in Merriam-Webster. I’m a fan of Merriam-Webster but this is not a good definition. Let’s just say it’s low effort. One of their blind spots, it seems:
Then they give a list of clearly being used in sentences. What really gets me about this Merriam Webster definition is that every sentence but one includes an example of a sentence using clearly that would be stronger without clearly. Here they are:
- You should try to speak more clearly.
- The mountain was clearly visible in the distance.
- They were set back in 2015, clearly by someone who never tried to work from home via Zoom while a teenager played World of Warcraft online and an eight year old was engrossed in Minecraft.
- Zuckerberg clearly wants the public to see him and his company as partners in the defense of democracy.
Yes, that first one is the example of it providing a real use. For one other good use of clearly, consider:
This is the distinction, as I see it. If clearly is modifying another verb in the sentence—usually something related to seeing, speaking, or writing—it has a purpose. If it’s in the sentence just to let you know that the rest of the things being described are clear, then it can go.
I do the same thing with clearly that I do with actually and other needless words. Every time I read it in a sentence, I re-read the sentence immediately and imagine it without the offending word.
Does this exercise work every time? No, but it works enough of the time that I do not use clearly in my own writing unless there is a very good reason—and, even then, there’s almost always a better way to write the sentence that entirely eliminates the need for clearly.