Clean Up Your Language: Words and Phrases to Avoid
Being able to accurately and succinctly communicate is maybe the most important—and least appreciated—skill any confident professional can have. Nonsensical jargon, occult acronyms, opaque turns of phrase, clichés, and meaningless platitudes—all these can obscure the point you are trying to make.
Here are some common problems in written and verbal communication to avoid, and how to avoid them:
Know what you’re saying
Very often, we use words and phrases that don’t make sense because we aren’t sure exactly what we want to say in the first place. The first step to avoiding nonsense words and meaningless phrases is to get your message straight in your own mind before opening your mouth.
As a living language, English is constantly evolving. Previously, “tweet” was only used to mean a bird sound and text was only ever used as a noun, not a verb. That said, there are still words with evolving meanings you should avoid.
- Literally/figuratively. Literally means the actual case, as in, “I was literally surprised.” Figuratively means you are using a simile or metaphor to describe something, as in, “My heart figuratively leapt out of my chest.” If your heart literally leapt out of your chest there is little chance you’d live to tell the tale.
- Unique means one of a kind. In recent years this word has been watered down to mean infrequent. This is still wrong. And don’t be tempted to use phrases like “very unique.” That is literally absurd. Something can be very unusual, very rare, very different, but not very one of a kind.
- Farther means distance and further means depth of engagement. “The farther out we swam, the further we got ourselves in trouble.”
Don’t undercut yourself
Being humble is fine, but don’t undercut yourself or your message. Cut these confidence killing phrases:
- “This is probably wrong but …”
- “This might be a bad idea but …”
Work to reduce these back-peddling phrases:
- “It’s just my opinion but …”
- “I’m no expert but …”
Try to limit these message-softening phrases:
- “I feel like …”
- “It might not be important but …”
All of these detract from the point you’re trying to make. Simply say it. If it’s not something you want to say, then don’t say it. But don’t gum up your message by muddying your language.
When someone veers off a prescribed plan they’re often said to be freelancing. This is very common in the business world, but completely incorrect.
Freelancing means to work for a multitude of employers without a long-term commitment to just one. It’s much more likely that this person is:
- ad-libbing (improvising spontaneously)
- acting extemporaneously (impromptu or spur of the moment),
- working ad hoc (without regard for greater consequences).
Confusing principal and principle is very common. The main person or thing in a group is the principal. The ethics we live by are principles.
Another common mistake is in using capitol or capital. A capitol is a building where legislative bodies meet. Capital is everything else: money or goods, an asset, an uppercase letter, the top of a column, a prominent city or seat of government where a capitol may be located, and the death sentence—capital punishment.
And then there are technically correct words that should never be used in a professional setting. One young employee once told us she’d been “conversating.” We almost screamed “conversing!” Even though our friends at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary have indeed traced the cringe-inducing word “conversate” back to 1811, it is seldom ever used and entirely inappropriate for business communications.
We could go on forever citing instances of misused words. Here is another example.
Me, myself, and I
For some reason many people think using “I” instead of “me” makes someone sound polished. Appearances aside, using the two correctly actually is polished.
- Wrong: Could you meet later with Joan and I?
- Right: Could you meet later with Joan and me?
Why? Consider this:
- Wrong: Could you meet later with I?
- Right: Could you meet later with me?
This leaves “myself” to deal with. We had a supervisor once who attempted to sound posh by writing this dreadful sentence in a team-wide email:
“If you have any questions, write an email to myself.”
Of course, his message was met with widespread mockery. I can write an email to myself. You can write an email to yourself. But you can’t write an email to myself. You must write the email to me.
Our old supervisor should have written:
“If you have any questions, write me an email.”
They might sound silly, but obvious grammatical mistakes like these creep into business writing all the time.
In novels and creative writing, idioms can be a useful way to say a lot in just a few words. But in business communications they can get you into trouble.
In their essential book of grammatical advice, The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White suggest shying away from idioms and catchphrases because they are so easily misunderstood.
For example, many offices ask their employees to “toe the line,” meaning stay orderly and follow uniformed direction. But what a listener may hear is “tow the line,” which could mean work hard as if pulling something heavy, or perhaps to bring up the rear of a project. Who knows?
There are a lot of these: We don’t “wet” our appetite but “whet” it (whet means to sharpen or stimulate). Likewise, if we are ambivalent about a subject we “couldn’t care less.” If we “could care less,” then we at least care a little.
Below are a few other common idioms misused in business writing.
- Due diligence means to study thoroughly. “Do diligence” is incorrect.
- For all intents and purposes is a very old legal term that these days means something is effectively or officially so. “For all intensive purposes” is wrong.
- If something has piqued your interest it has awakened or aroused your interest. “Peaked your interest” is wrong.
- You can table something but doing so has different meanings depending on who you’re talking to. In the United States, to table something is to remove it from consideration. When a British speaker tables something, however, they are doing the opposite; they are placing it on the agenda.
It may be best to simply say what you mean. Be safe and just remove these sorts of idioms from your language unless you know for sure what you’re saying.
Don’t verb a noun
Corporate speak is full of nouns turned verb. It’s an ugly mess. Yes, we now text where we once wrote. But don’t get carried away.
- Don’t message something. Communicate it.
- Don’t action something. Act on it. Or do it.
Grow your lexicon
There are words you rarely use and may never learn to spell. If you have a question, go to the dictionary. It’s good for you. It will also help you grow your vocabulary. Here’s an example: We worked with a woman once who told a subordinate his facial hair made him look “dirty.” That’s a fairly rude thing to say. She might have made her point more politely by saying the beard made him look untidy or unkempt.