Careful writers and speakers use good judgement and variety when choosing their words and phrases. However, it seems as though each year generates a new list of words and phrases that have garnered particular misuse and abuse over the year by far too many communicators, who should know better but who seem to be caught in the trap of misuse and abuse of the English language.
A list of the previous year’s most abused and misused words/phrases first appeared on January 1, 1976, compliments of the late W. T. Rabe, who was the public relations director at Lake Superior State University (LSSU) in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Sadly, a new list of words and phrases has been generated on an annual basis ever since, and there doesn’t appear a shortage of content for future lists being added.
Below are the biggest offenders for 2015, along with explanations as to why they made the made the list. This newest list, which was published on January 1, 2016, by LSSU, represents the 40th annual list developed by LSSU—is there no shame?
|So||That’s right folks, you should never respond to a question by opening with the word “so.” Example: “What is your favorite pastime?” Answer: “So, my favorite pastime is hiking along nature trails.”|
|Conversation||Media types from all areas seem particularly prone to misuse this word and substitute it for every type of verbal/written word that describes an exchange. “Conversation” seems to have pushed other words such as “discussion, chat, dialog, etc.” out of the way.|
|Problematic||This word appears to have made its evolution and burst on to the scene thanks to the corporate world. If you want to indicate that something appears to be a problem, why not just say it that way?|
|Stakeholder||First used to describe someone who has a stake in a matter or decision, now everyone, e.g., customers, clients, etc., are lumped into this category.|
|Price Point||The comment left on the ISSU web site by one person declared, “It has no ‘point.’ It is just a ‘price.’” Makes sense!|
|Secret Sauce||This phrase, which is meant to refer to some “secret” in “way too much information” detail have left some wondering if it was developed by someone in the fast food industry but somehow found its way into general business discussions.|
|Break the Internet||Refers to a posted comment, photo, or video that may be controversial, that has gone viral, and that will overload the Internet servers and “break them.” What would all of us do if the Internet did break?|
|Walk it back||Meant to show the retreat on or retraction of a statement or policy. We’ve seen politicians do this all the time. I wonder how exhausted they must be after so much “walking back”?|
|Presser||Can you believe this “nonword” made it in to the vocabulary of some as a substitute for press release or press conference? We can do better!|
|Manspreading||Sounds a little vulgar, but it is meant to describe someone taking up too much space on a bus or a subway transit system. This term (it, too, is a “nonword”) has then been used to describe other situations where someone takes more than his or her fair share. Didn’t we used to say “hogging” something?|
|Vape||Used to describe the smoking of e-cigarettes, which actually emit vapor and not smoke. It would be wonderful if the person who left the comment at ISSU’s site, “I hope this one goes up in smoke,” gets his or her wish!|
|Giving me life||This phrase refers to anything that may excite a person or something that may cause the person to laugh. Not good!|
|Physicality||Yep, this noun has become popular in the sports world within the past couple of years, but really folks, what does it mean? It is being used to refer to an athlete or contest, but according to Merriman-Webster, the word physicality refers to, “the predominance of the physical usually at the expense of the mental, spiritual, or social.” Does this mean the body is supreme over the mind? You be the judge!|
To see a complete list of words and phrases that have made their way to the “banished” list over this 40-year time period, please visit Lake Superior State University’s web site at
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Here’s the thing about electronic communication in the business world nowadays. You rarely have to face the person on the other end so it becomes easy to hide behind a wall of transactions like “reply and delete,” “follow-up, clean up, and forward.” In the section on ‘tone’ in my handbook, I wrote, “Do not think of email as some protective covering.” Actually, it should go something like this, do not think of business writing as protective covering. It’s anything but…..your writing and the tone you create in your messages can make you an open book, that is, open to other people’s interpretation. Try not to let this happen.
You will send many messages in the workplace. Typically, most of them will be in the form of email and instant messaging. But depending on your job, you may also be tasked with more formal writing such as letters, memos, and progress reports to name a few.
Just as the singing contestants in the NBC series, The Voice, work to create the most beautiful tone and win the contest, you must also work to create the most appropriate tone in your business writing. How? By understanding the origin of tone, and understanding what it takes to ensure your tone is always appropriate. Because the concept of tone is challenging and requires explanation and exercises, let’s confine our discussion to two basic questions and some solid advice.
In my handbook, I explain it in this simple way, “Tone is Attitude. And attitude is a state of mind that can be passed on in our words.”
Your tone is appropriate when you take the ‘mood out of the message’.
Solid Advice Understand Emotional Mine Fields To keep the mood out of the message, know how to navigate the emotional mine fields. It’s good to have a happy and upbeat attitude. But what about the times when you are not particularly happy and upbeat? These are the times when you must work to keep your mood out of your message. Think about sleepless nights, car troubles, family matters, and workload deadlines. These can drive the tone of your message and can wreak havoc in business communication. On the flip side, think about successes? Don’t let them go to your head. Remember, you are a member of the team and must treat your colleagues with respect. It can be easy to slip into the, “I’m the king of the world” attitude (Titanic, Twentieth Century Fox, 1997).
Avoid Booby Traps in the Mine Fields As you make your way through the mine fields, don’t be caught off guard and let your emotions lead you into the trap of…….
Being Contentious – Don’t use combative, bombastic language that suggests you are the conqueror and your colleagues are the conquered. Remember, cultivating teamwork means success for all.
Being Bossy – Don’t use pretentious and domineering language as if you have been given the ‘alpha’ role. Remember, this decision likely rests with others.
Why is it Important to Keep the Mood Out of The Message? Know that your mood can be caused by a single emotional response or a conglomerate of them. Emotional responses include such things as anger, sadness, indifference, arrogance, and sarcasm. If you need to take some time, take the time and write when you are feeling calm, clear, and objective.
Know that your readers may misunderstand and think your emotional response is their fault, or that you are directing your anger at them when in fact you are angry with yourself.
Know that electronic messages are practically eternal in cyberspace. They may never be fully deleted either on the server or in the minds of your colleagues.
Know that words have consequences. What you think is acceptable or funny may be offensive to others. Do not use slang or overly familiar language. Do not use text-speak. Do not use expletives of any kind. Use Standard English and practice good grammar and spelling. Stay away from humor.
GOLDEN RULE – THE MESSAGE CREATES THE IMAGE Some of your colleagues will never have the privilege of meeting you face to face and building a traditional working relationship. They will have to rely on your messaging. So, make your messaging worthy of ‘who you truly are’ and ‘how you wish to be known’.
For a more expanded discussion on tone in business writing, see my book, Royce Murcherson, Ph.D., The Guide to Persuasive Business Writing: A New Model that Gets Results. (Iowa: Kendall-Hall, 2013) 1-11.
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This article is the second in a four-part guest series written by Royce Murcherson, Ph.D., on how to improve your writing skills and behavior. Dr. Murcherson is a faculty member in World Languages, Cultures, and Communications at Richland College in Dallas.
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- Grammar is relevant for all companies.
- Good grammar is credibility, and especially on the Internet—your words are all that you have in blog posts, social media, e-mails, and company websites. He goes on to say that your words, “are a projection of you in your physical absence…for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.”
- Good grammar just makes good business sense. Wiens’ company, iFixit, has the responsibility of producing clear, correct online instructions for repairs—just think what would happen if some poorly written instructions caused the wrong wires to get crossed!
If you want to improve your grammar and writing skills, consider taking grammar review and business writing classes in the BOSS program. For more information contact Becky Jones, Associate Dean, email@example.com 972-238-6215.