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Posts within the category: Usage
November 16, 2010
I recently came across an article about 115 forbidden words and expressions compiled by Randy Michaels, CEO of the Tribune Co. The company owns the Chicago radio station WGN, and Michaels forbid radio anchors and reporters from using these words. Among forbidden words and expressions are some that make me cringe as well.
- 5 a.m. in the morning
- at this point in time
- close proximity
- fatal death
- in harm’s way
- completely destroyed, completely abolished, completely finished or any other completely redundant use
Following up on Michaels' directive, WGN’s news director Charlie Meyerson circulated the list to on-air talent. He directed his staff to report co-worker infractions, noting the precise time and date on "bingo” cards.
That got me thinking about overused and misused words and expressions that I’d like to outlaw. Here are my baker's dozen. Some of them have been around for a long time and are worn out. Others have worn out their welcome in just a short time. (None are on the WGN list.)
- Special. You’d have thought that Dana Carey’s SNL parodies of “isn’t that special,” in the 1980s, would have put this on the endangered list. But despite The Church Lady, it's now applied to almost every person, gift, event, activity, organization, and promotion. The result: special is no longer special.
- Awesome. The Grand Canyon and Taj Mahal are awesome. Most everything else is not.
- Absolutely. Perhaps the most overused expression in the English language. Explains CNN'S John Blake: "It's a verbal virus that's spreading unchecked on TV, radio and in print. Want to sound certain? Want to remove all doubt? Want to be a commentator on TV? Absolutely."
- Issues. A nicer way of saying problems: I have issues with this plan. He has commitment issues. She has health issues. Why not just say problems?
- Cool. This is a relic from the 1950s. Beatniks were cool.
- Guys. You guys. Those guys. This expression jumped genders and now refers to any group of people. I particularly hate it when my waiter says, “I’ll be serving you guys.”
- Throw under the bus. Shorthand for sacrificing a person for political gain. Among those who were or weren’t thrown under the bus by President Obama were Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. and Obama’s grandmother. Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod was thrown under the bus for an out-of-context remark then pulled out from under the bus when it became known that she was a civil rights activist. On the Republican side, Scooter Libby was thrown under the bus by Vice President Dick Cheney.
- Not so much. Edgy satirist Lenny Bruce used this phrase in the 1960s. But the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart popularized it. When asked which Democrat he saw stepping forward to lead the party: "I like this guy John Kennedy. Since him, not so much."
- My bad. This one grated on me from the time I first heard it, and it continues to feel like chalk on a squeaky board. (Talk about outdated expressions! Marking pen on a white board?) While historians trace this back to Shakespeare, it came into the mainstream with the 1995 movie Clueless. Cher (Alicia Silverstone) swerves to avoid hitting a bicyclist. “Whoops, my bad.”
- It is what it is. This bit of Zen philosophy has come to mean whatever you want it to mean. Among the meanings: screw it, that’s the way it is, nothing we can do about it, and que sera, sera. It normally puts the brakes on discussion. What can you say in response?
- Not that I’m. . . (prejudiced, racist, homophobic, sexist). This almost always precedes a statement that shows prejudice. Explains Rational Wiki, "These words are spoken in the mistaken belief that simply saying 'I'm not prejudiced' is enough to exempt the speaker from responsibility for the offensive comment they are about to make."
- Get it. He gets it. She doesn’t get it. These phrases express exasperation at someone's failure to understand something. It owes its popularity to the great communicator Ronald Reagan. In a 1980s presidential debate, then candidate Reagan chided his opponent, President Jimmy Carter: "You just don't get it, do you?"
- Shellacking. Okay, this is a preemptive strike. President Obama used it to describe the Democrats' heavy losses in the 2010 mid-term election. But I’ve heard it enough times since then to merit its inclusion in the list.
Alas, I’m not the head of a large media conglomerate. I don’t have the power to enforce or humiliate those who use my outlawed expressions. Compliance is voluntary; I can only plead.
What's on your list of overused and abused expressions? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail. I'll compile the list and post it.
-- Marilynne Rudick (guest blogger)
July 11, 2010
We recently evaluated the correspondence of a major insurance company and its competitors. Using a benchmarking tool we developed, we rated their e-mails and letters to customers on seven Standards. One Standard that we carefully looked at was tone: "Correspondence is written in a personal, professional tone."
While the topic of the correspondence frequently involved complex legal and regulatory issues, the insurance companies did a very good job of creating a personal and professional tone. Exactly how did they do this? We've identified the excellent strategies they used and provided some examples. We've also flagged some lapses in tone that you may find creeping into your own correspondence.
We think these do's and don'ts provide guidance on creating the right tone in any industry or organization.
Strategies That Create a Personal, Professional Tone
1. Do use personal pronouns.
- You will receive your ATM/Debit Card by mail within seven to ten days.
- You're automatically enrolled in our free online bill paying program.
2. Do use active voice.
- Send your payment to the address on your billing statement.
3. Do use action verbs.
- You can pay bills, transfer funds, request your auto ID card, place stock trades, set up alerts and more.
4. Do use plain, simple language.
- We’re letting you know about those changes so you can take advantage of today’s earning levels and rewards. You will not lose points, and you have until March 31, 2010, to redeem your points at the current level.
5. Do use words that show respect for customers.
- You are a valued customer, and we thank you for banking with us.
- For more information, please call a customer service representative at XXXX. We apologize for this inconvenience and look forward to continuing to serve your financial needs.
Tone Lapses That Make the Writing Stiff and Bureaucratic
1. Don't use passive voice.
- No action is necessary unless this activity occurred without your knowledge or permission.
2. Don't use bureaucratic language.
- Our records show that on 5/12/09 at 11:44 AM, you accessed your online account and established or updated the following information: Password
- The disclosed and corrected information is as follows:
- We are enclosing an "Important Information About Damage Caused by Flooding" notice, which you should also keep with the above referenced policy.
3. Don't use inflated and clichéd words and phrases.
- Rest assured that you will continue to enjoy unparalleled value from our rewards program.
- Due to the new regulations
- These are challenging economic times for everyone.
4. Don't use caveats and legalese.
- Based on the information you provided and certain assumptions we made (such as assumptions about the credit report information we obtained) to calculate this estimate, the estimated cost for the auto insurance we discussed with the coverages, limits and deductibles shown below is $407/6 months.
What did we learn by evaluating insurance industry correspondence? It doesn't take a gecko to communicate with customers. The right tone is not a matter of accent or species. It's choosing the right words.
-- Marilynne Rudick (guest blogger)
June 16, 2010
I've spent the last two days attending (and speaking at) the ACCE Call Center Management Conference. I have heard lots of insightful presentations about providing excellent customer service and I've met some really intelligent and interesting people. It's been a great event.
And I have heard some buzzwords! Some buzzwords that are new to me and that strain the English language to the breaking point. We're not talking about the tame paradigm shift or the old school think outside the box. No, we are talking about some killer buzzwords, ones that leave actual meaning in the ditch beside the road.
Here's a short list of new items for my buzzword collection:
- baked in, as in "That analytics feature is baked into our system."
- scale, as in "This project model is not going to scale."
- federate, as in "Our group needed to federate the task."
- decisioning, as in "We used real time decisioning to spur proactive events."
- career pathing, as in "We have a low rate of staff turnover because we offer career pathing."
- space, as in "We intend to be leaders in the pharmaceutical space."
- incent, as in "We incent our sales team for bringing in repeat business."
My all-time favorite buzzword:
- attrit, as in "Generally, we don't want to lay people off. We'd rather attrit them."
Do you love buzzwords? When you attend a meeting or a conference, do you enjoy a robust round of Business Buzzword Bingo? If so, let's keep the list going. Send me your favorite buzzwords or post a comment here.
-- Leslie O'Flahavan
January 25, 2010
A colleague of mine—an expert online editor and web content manager—sent me this e-mail last week:
Can you give me some style guidance or a citation that says “using ‘and/or’ in a sentence is just plain dumb"? I was editing some web pages and ran across this construction at least four times. I wanted to tell the writer to NEVER do this again but wanted some source material. I struggle to keep our pages from sounding too “researchery” or “lawyery” and, given where I work, that’s tough.
Always interested in being helpful, and in stamping out anything that's just plain dumb, I did some quick research online to see if style guides or other editorial experts also dislike and/or. Here's what I found:
- The Writing Styleguide and Dictionary of Plain English, published by Duncan Kent & Associates, advises writers to avoid using and/or where either and or or will do.
- The UC Berkeley iNews Style Guide tells writers to avoid the slash, avoid and/or, and to just use or.
- The American Chemical Society's Style Guide places and/or in Chapter 1 under the heading "Words and Phrases To Avoid," stating that writers should replace and/or with either and or or, depending on their meaning.
- In the American Anthropological Association's Style Guide, the and/or advice is simple: "never use." And leave it to anthropologists to put the advice in a chapter titled "Orthography."
- The APA Research Style Crib Sheet doesn't waffle either: "Do not use and/or."
So the verdict is in: and/or is JPD (just plain dumb). Do you agree? Comment here or e-mail me with your opinion.
-- Leslie O'Flahavan
January 20, 2010
Reading the newspaper each day, I catch frequent errors in grammar and usage. It’s easy for me to find errors in newspapers—and, in general, in the writing of others. What’s hard is finding errors in my own writing. By the time I get to the proofreading stage, I’ve looked at the document so many times that I see what I think is on the page, not what’s actually there.
My failsafe remedies for finding errors—asking someone else to proofread or putting the document aside for a while before a final proofing—aren’t always practical, especially with tight deadlines.
Feeling like I’ve exhausted my arsenal of proofreading techniques, I’ve looked to experts (including the Online Writing Lab at University of Arkansas, the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina, Grammar Girl) for advice beyond the tried-and-true (read aloud, use spell-check). Here are some new-to-me techniques for catching errors.
Proofread for only one kind of error at a time. For example, proof one time for punctuation (or even commas) and look for spelling errors in another read-through.
Check for spelling errors by reading the document backwards. Start with the last word on the last page and work your way back to the beginning. Because content, punctuation, and grammar won’t make any sense, your focus will be entirely on the spelling of each word.
Print in an unfamiliar font so that the document looks different. Try a smaller font to force you to read more slowly and concentrate.
Make a list of your proofreading gremlins. Are there words you frequently misspell? Do you capitalize headings inconsistently? Do you forget end quotes or the closing parenthesis? Proofread one time for your common errors.
Do occasional typos and other mechanical errors really matter? In a recent Washington Post column on the increase in grammar and usage errors in the newspaper, ombudsman Andrew Alexander quotes a reader on how these errors erode credibility: “If they don’t care about basics like grammar and spelling, how much do they care about factual accuracy?”
Add your proofreading tips to this list. Leave a comment or send me an e-mail.
-- Marilynne Rudick (guest blogger)
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