I was looking over my son's English papers and found a page on "Dead Words", which included the verbs "would", "could", and "should". No explanation is given for this section.

Can someone explain how these words are not right when used as verbs, and an alternate way that is better so I can get a grasp on this?

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    The instructional materials should be less prescriptive. Calling those "dead words" could lead to the student avoiding them unnecessarily, which would be very unfortunate. – Hot Licks Oct 17 '17 at 2:53
  • OK, so it looks like the teacher was stringent with her choice of dead words. – Steve Oct 17 '17 at 4:29
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    We have no idea why the teacher said they were dead words. Ask the teacher. – Arm the good guys in America Oct 17 '17 at 8:40
  • @Clare This is old material. I have no idea who the teacher is. :) – Steve Oct 17 '17 at 13:28

The teacher's use of "dead words" does not make sense. Often in English, so-called dead words are words that have been, metaphorically, used to death. The phrase "kind of" would be an example of a dead phrase. "It was really very kind of cool" makes no sense otherwise. "Kind of" was a softener, or a qualifier. It has not become its antonym (i.e., it has not become an intensifier; it has not fallen to the fate of a word like "literal"). It is just meaningless. It went from an overused softener (because no one wanted to sound arrogant or take the risk of being definitive) to just being a verbal tic. When we soften phrases, we add "sort of", yielding "it was kind of sort of fun" (softened) as opposed to "it was kind of fun" (the new neutral) or as opposed to "it was really kind of fun" (the new intense).

But should/could/would still have lexical content. You cannot take them out of sentences and expect the resulting sentences to carry the same meaning or even for them to make grammatical sense.

There is no reason to call a word like "should" a dead word. There is no replacement for it. It can be overused, but this is different from being a dead word. "You should leave now." can change to "Seriously, it is imperative that you vacate immediately!"

If we totally avoid words like should/could/would we end up with unwieldy "purple prose" and the excessive repetition of other constructions. Saying someone should not use "should" is akin to saying someone should not use "not" or "the" or "have" in the phrase "I have scrounged the depths of this lake for twenty years in vain, hoping to find the remains of the S.S. Toby; not a day goes by where I don't consider giving up."

Let's look at the following: "I really should have checked the seat when I got up; this was the third wallet this year that I lost because it fell out of my pocket in a taxi cab." Now consider the following avoidance of "should": "This being the third wallet this year that I lost from it falling out of my pocket in a taxi cab, my getting out of taxi cabs necessitates my checking the seat before leaving."

A better candidate for removal is "very". For example, "I was very upset" can become "I was devastated". Also, trying to avoid the verb "be" is a good tool, and the excessive use of passive voice is my bug bear. See the following sentence "The news would have devastated her on any other day, but nothing could bring her down today." I have no idea how this teacher would suggest changing the previous sentence, or even this one.

You often do not need to be skilled in your content area to be a schoolteacher. It would be nice if all were so trained, but many are only trained in pedagogy (not to diminish this!). Generally, just a general college education is enough. And even then, you do not need very many subject courses to get certified to teach a certain subject area, even at the high school level. (This assumes you are somewhere in the USA, where standards vary greatly from state to state.)

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    Hi Jonathan and welcome to ELU. You will be able to comment when you have garnered enough reputation by answering and asking questions, at which you have made a grand start. However, as the help center says 'Answers that do not fundamentally answer the question may be removed. This includes answers that are commentary on the question or other answers'.You're answer is part answer and part commentary on Kevin's answer. Can I suggest you remove the commentary? – Spagirl Oct 17 '17 at 9:06
  • Thank you for the revision, I went ahead and edited my answer. – Kevin fu Oct 17 '17 at 9:46
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    Since Kevin has now definitely seen the comment, I’ve gone ahead and removed it from this answer. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 17 '17 at 9:49
  • I am guilty of saying "kind of" sometimes, but when I do say it, it's not a verbal tic, it's a softener, similar to "sort of", but definitely not neutral. Looks like many words and phrases become verbal ticks to some. Or overturned, like "literally". Then the same wording has different meaning depending on who said it. – Heimdall Oct 17 '17 at 10:20
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Cheers, I'll leave my comment there for not to make sure the OP sees it and understands what went on. – Spagirl Oct 17 '17 at 13:25

I note that there are quite a number of dead word lists associated with different universities / english courses online. Few have should, would, could. It seems like each professor / teacher uses these lists to try to break overuse habits. In my opinion, the problem with should, would, could relates more to the lack of proper use of the subjunctive (or a complete lack of understanding of how to use the subjunctive) than to overuse in general, at least among the papers handed in by my students. D

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Steve. As some previous answers say, it seems that the ‘dead words list’ has spread to a number of universities. As far as I know, they have no kind of official standing - certainly not here in the U.K.

There is a sensible point that sometimes words/phrases are used without genuine meaning - especially in students’ academic writing.

For example. I can imagine a student writing “I should say that Karl Marx could have had a point, even though his ideas are impractical.”. The words ‘should’ and ‘could’ are not truly meant. They are there to make the student sound cautious and judicious. He should come out and say “Karl Marx had a point, even ...”.

The rule “say what you mean, and say it simply and directly” is the best rule. Students do tend to clutch at clichés and ‘dead’ words and phrases. Teachers may concoct ‘dead lists’ because they despair of getting their students to follow the principle.

This is my best shot at advice, though I admit my diagnosis is speculative.

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"Dead words" are words that are overused and that have lost their meanings or their impact.

it could mean your son overused the words: "Would, Could, and Should" in his English paper.

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