Tag Archives: annoying words

What Is Business Writing?

© Judi Birnberg

 

Somewhere, somehow, people in the business world got the idea that using everyday English for their written communications was just not professional. The simplest sentence turned into a Pronouncement From On High. It was taboo to write As we discussed yesterday. Writing As per our previous conversation/dialog yesterday…. was suddenly seen as elegant and professional. The Latin phrase and redundancy made it even weightier. Bravo for you, middle manager!

I spent over 20 years in the corporate world leading business writing seminars in which participants came to see this stilted and pretentious style of writing as an impediment to communication. I urged them to write as if they were speaking to the recipient sitting across their desk. No one speaks in that bureaucratic manner, so why write that way? Obviously, the corporations that hired me knew what I was teaching and wanted their employees to lose the jargon. I did my little part, but I am quite sure the pompous style still lives at many companies. Simple, straightforward, everyday English ensures that all recipients will understand the message. It saves time and money. Questions about intent are no longer necessary. Say what you mean, just as if you were talking to your audience face to face. Business writing is clear, direct, and concise. That’s all it takes.

 

 

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What to Call Half the Population

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ICK!

Are they females or women? In most cases, female is the adjective and woman is the noun. Referring to women lawyers is unnecessary; we don’t refer to men lawyers. In vocations that were until quite recently male, it may be necessary to write, for example,  female soldiers.

If you want to use female as a noun, reserve it for the following situations: for animals; when you don’t know if the person in question is a girl or a woman; and when describing a gathering that includes both girls and women.

It’s common for women to describe their close female friends as their girlfriends. It would be a very good idea for males to avoid calling women girls. And it grates on my ear when I hear women refer to their female friends as gals. Ick. But that’s just me.

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Redundancies: Don’t Say It Again, Sam

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VIN=Vehicle Identification Number, so just use VIN, not VIN number.
Same idea with PIN.
ATM machine? ATM says it all.
HIV virus? The V tells us it’s a virus.
No need to say something is blue in color, square in shape, absolutely complete, a total disaster or a true fact.
Unless it’s by John Phillip Sousa, no need to say the month of March.
Nine a.m. in the morning? Choose a.m. or morning, not both.

This is my final conclusion.

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Trump’s Use of Language

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Full disclaimer: I am not and never was a supporter of Donald Trump. As much as I abhorred his style of campaigning and saw him as a misogynistic, racist, and cruel candidate (I cannot shake the image of him imitating a disabled reporter), I was always fascinated by his use of language. He usually spoke in very short sentences with a severely limited vocabulary, often in fragments, and repeated words and phrases many times in a row. He was far from a polished speaker, but I have no doubt his conversational style struck a chord with his audiences: he showed he was not above them, that he was at their level. He made them comfortable. Many poor, jobless, undereducated and uneducated people were able to relate to a New York City billionaire who attended an Ivy League school. Go figure.

The following items are far from a full analysis of his favorite words, just some that have stuck with me.

CLASSY: I built the Grand Hyatt right next to Grand Central Station —beautiful, classy job— but then the city denied my request to have the top 10 floors illuminated with my face at night. Can you believe that?

TERRIFIC: (About Obamacare): Repeal and replace with something terrific. (But no details were given.)

TREMENDOUS: I am worth a tremendous amount of money. I have had tremendous success.
(on Islam) There’s something there…there’s a tremendous hatred there.

HUGE (pronounced YUGE): It’s gonna be huge!

AMAZING: Yesterday was amazing—5 victories.

DANGEROUS: (on protesters at Trump speeches) They are really dangerous and they get in there and start hitting people.

TOUGH: Mike Tyson endorsed me. You know, all the tough guys endorse me. I like that. OK?

SMART: I’m, like, a really smart person.

MORON: (on Nelson Mandela’s funeral) What a sad thing that the memory of Nelson Mandela will be stained by the phony sign language moron who is in every picture at [the] funeral!

WE: (This indicates solidarity with his audiences. He is telling them what they believe and that he agrees with them.) We need to build a wall on the Mexican border. We are going to make Mexico pay for it.
We are going to make great trade deals.
We are going to bring back our jobs.
We will totally dismantle Iran’s global terror network.

THEY: (This word indicates “the other,” those who are in opposition.)  (on immigrants) They’re pouring in. They are bringing drugs, they are bringing crime.
The Mexican government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.
(on poor people who become politicians) And I said to myself, if they can stay so poor for so many generations, maybe this isn’t the kind of person we want to be electing to higher office. How smart can they be? They’re morons.

LOSER: (on John McCain) I supported him, he lost, he let us down. But you know, he lost, so I’ve never liked him as much after that, because I don’t like losers…. He’s not a war hero…. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.

STUPID: I went to an Ivy League school. I’m highly educated. I know words. I have the best words, I have the best, but there is no better word than stupid. Right?

WINNING: We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning. Believe me. You’ll never get bored with winning. You’ll never get bored!

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The Lie vs. Lay Dilemma

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I’m guessing that within ten years the distinctions between these two words will have disappeared. But until September 2026, you might consider sticking to the following rules.

LIE (we’re not going to deal with the situation in which the truth is ignored) means to lie down, to rest or recline. Every day after lunch, I lie down. I don’t lay down. I lay something down.

LAY means to put or place: Every day when I lie down, I lay my head on my pillow.

That covers the present tense of both verbs. It gets a little sticky when you go into past tenses:

LIE in the past tense is (wait for it) LAY. Yesterday after lunch, I lay down. OMG, in the present tense you lie down, but in the past tense you lay down! Remember, I don’t make these rules up; I just teach them.

It gets even worse: in the past perfect tense, when has, had or have is part of your verb, you need LAIN. (I bet you’ve never written that word in your life—but it’s not too late to start.) Every day after lunch, I always have lain down.

As for the past tenses of LAY, here is what you want: Yesterday I laid my head on my pillow. I always have laid my head on my pillow.

If your head is aching, perhaps you’d like to lay your head on your pillow.

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You Guys

 

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I’m wondering how you feel about the ubiquitous phrase you guys. We went to brunch today with another couple: two women and two men. The server repeatedly referred to us as you guys: Are you guys ready to order? Do you guys want any coffee? Is there anything else I can get you guys?

I’m not sure what the female equivalent of guys is. Gals? (I hate that word.) Girls? I’m long past my girlhood. Dolls, as in the great Broadway show? (But ick.)

It’s not as if people don’t recognize two sexes at the table. But if a female-denoting word were habitually to be used to address a mixed-gender group, I’m guessing the males would stifle that immediately. Are women ready to announce they are not guys? Or do we let it roll over us and fuggedaboudit?

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Do You Pronounce the T in Often?

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I was recently asked why we sometimes pronounce the T in often but not in listen. I wasn’t sure, so I consulted the grammar guru who writes the invaluable blog  Grammarphobia, Pat O’Conner. She wrote the equally invaluable (and funny) book Woe Is I. You can subscribe to Grammarphobia and get her frequent posts on English language oddities. I highly recommend it.

This is blog post of hers that addressed the meandering T:

<<Q: I just discovered your site and I plan to return often. Oh, that reminds me – it makes me crazy to hear people pronounce the “t” in “often.”

A: The word “often” can be pronounced with a silent “t” (the more common pronunciation) or with an audible “t.” Both are correct, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the version with the audible “t” occurs in educated speech but is considered unacceptable by some.

American Heritage has an interesting usage note after its entry for “often.” During the 15th century, it seems, English speakers stopped pronouncing some sounds within consonant clusters, making the language easier to articulate. Examples include the “d” in “handsome” and “handkerchief,” the “p” in “consumption” and “raspberry,” and the “t” in “chestnut” and “often.”

With the rise of public education and people’s awareness of spelling in the 19th century, according to the dictionary, sounds that had become silent were sometimes restored. This is what happened with the “t” in “often.”

You might be interested in knowing that “often” was originally just “oft,” and “oft” was commonly used as a prefix in word combinations that are archaic and unrecognizable today. Even a word like ‘oftentimes,” which appears in modern dictionaries, seems dated and has musty, quaint overtones. It’s also a term that drives people crazy because of its apparent redundancy. But in fact, the words “oftentime,” “oftentimes,” and “oftime” date back to the early 1400s, and “ofttimes” was first recorded in the 1300s, so they have a venerable history.>>

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Have a Seat

 

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I remember many years ago first hearing chair used as a verb and thinking it was odd. But with all language, usage makes the strange familiar. In the olden days, the person heading the committee was a chairman, no matter that person’s sex. Now chairman is used to indicate a male, chair is used for either sex, and chairwoman is frowned upon. Dianne Feinstein is the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, even when she stands up.

Theodore Bernstein, author of The Careful Writer and Dos, Don’ts and Maybes of English Usage, thought chair (v.) was a fad and spoofed its use by inventing some parallel words: He imagined people elevatoring themselves to their penthouses, getting dinner-jacketed and going theatering. Fortunately, none of those atrocities caught on, but today you can sit on a chair or guide a committee.

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More Spring Cleaning

© Judi Birnberg Time to Clean

© Judi Birnberg
Time to Clean

Last week I suggested you do some spring cleaning and rid your writing of redundant jargon and clichés. I heard from several of you who added additional suggestions, such as 7 a.m. Monday morning and the month of March. (I used to tell my classes, if it wasn’t by John Phillip Sousa it had to be the month.)

Jeff Wright, a very smart man I was lucky enough to have in one of my seminars, sent me a list he has compiled of his, ahem, favorites. With thanks to Jeff, I present the following:

Completely unique
Ask a question
Emergency situation
Cameo appearance
Filled to capacity
Tough dilemma
Close proximity
Shower activity
Storm system
False pretense
Added bonus
Very critical
Kneel down
Tuna fish
Heat up

I can also add these:

Any qualifier with unique (very, most, really, truly)
True fact
Surrounded on all sides
Exactly identical
New innovation
Disappear from view
Repeat again
Final conclusion
Purple in color
Completely free
Circled around

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Nix the Cooperation

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Thank you for your cooperation.

 

This is a very common closing to a business letter (and it’s also a cliché).

Here is the typical situation: You have asked your readers to do something you know they don’t want to do. They have neither the time nor interest, but you need their help. You give them the order, but to sweeten the deal you then add, Thank you for your cooperation.

Can you see how insincere that sounds? They are going to cooperate only because they have to (or else).

Generally, in business writing you want to get to the point and get out as quickly as possible. However, this situation calls for more words so your readers will understand you know you are imposing on them.

Try something like this:

Jackie, I know you are exceedingly busy this week, and I greatly appreciate your taking the time to help me out with this project. Thanks so much for lending a hand; I’ll do the same for you whenever you need my help.

Five words or a whole paragraph? If you write the paragraph, your co-workers will likely have more respect for you. That’s important.

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A Few Pet Peeves, Linguistic Variety

Yea! You wrote "espresso! © Judi Birnberg

Yea! You wrote “espresso”!
© Judi Birnberg

Here’s a quick and simple one for you, suggested by a reader. I share her pet peeve: The “word” anyways does not exist. Just use anyway.

I would be so pleased if people looked at etcetera and pronounced it correctly. There is no EK in the word. It begins with ET, which is Latin for and.

Your favorite coffee drink is an espresso, not an expresso.

Thank you for your cooperation.

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Fillers

Speakers of all languages pepper their listeners with fillers, those sounds and words that take up little space and allow the speakers to figure out where they’re going. Here are some language-specific fillers:

Britain— spelled er (but pronounced uh)
France—euh
Israel (Hebrew speakers)—ehhh
Holland—uh and um
Germanyah and ahm
Serbia and Croatia—ovay
Turkey—mmmm
Sweden—eh, ah, aaah, m, mm, hmm, ooh, a and oh (very creative, no?)
Norway—e, eh, m, hm

Sometimes fillers are more than just a sound; they are complete words:

English speakerswell, you know, I mean, so
Turkey—shey, shey shey, which means thing
Mandarin Chinese—neige, meaning that
Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong—tsik hai, which means equal
Wichita Indian—kaakiri, meaning something

It seems that um is ubiquitous, found in every language.
My information comes from, um, the book titled Um, written by, um, Michael Erard.

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New Job Titles

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According to an article in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times (9/24/15), it’s becoming somewhat trendy for people in the corporate world to invent their own titles. At Google, employees can give themselves any title they like. Who wants to be a regional general manager or a vice president when you can be the Jolly Good Fellow, the person in charge of Google’s meditation and mindfulness program (and remember, I’m just reporting this, not making it up). Google also has a Chief Extraterrestrial Observer: obviously, that’s the guy who founded the Google Earth Engine.

But it’s not just Google or even Silicon Valley. A designer now calls himself the Head of Touchy-Feely Graphics in an effort to avoid using the words “user experience.”

Need a Certified Thanatologist (and how does one become certified in that field)? Contact Gail Rubin, who helps people deal with all aspects of death. Her business card identifies her as “The Doyenne of Death.” Of course.

A hardware engineer named Mike Savini decided that since he specialized in solving computer glitches, he should be called a Bug Specialist. I have to wonder how many requests he gets to deal with ant or rat infestations.

Troika, a marketing company in Los Angeles, has hired Maya Imberman as Head of the Happiness Committee. Eva Scofield, who works for Graze, is a Snack Huntress for her company.

This seems to be a trend because, in part, these titles are good icebreakers and are thought to make employees more engaged with their work. I happen to see them as adding to the already pervasive jargon in the corporate world. What do you think?

I’ve been called a Grammar Guru as well as a Grammar Nazi. Somehow, I never felt the urge to put one of those on a business card. Right about now, I’m guessing many of you are thinking about what your actual titles should be. Feel free to send me the printable ones.

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More Commonly Misused Phrases

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These lists certainly have been popular. I’ve heard from many of you, and you even offered additional suggestions, for which I am very grateful. Here is another crop of malaprops, a word made famous by Richard Sheridan in his play The Rivals (1775), which contains a character named Mrs. Malaprop.

1. Flush out Nope. You mean to flesh out an argument, put some meat on the bones. If you flush it out, you know where it goes.

2. Unlease a hornet’s nest You want to cancel your lease on that hornet’s nest? I understand. But more likely you want to unleash it, to set those hornets free to sting someone else.

3. Electrical votes This is shocking. Better to use electoral votes. Imagine, we’ll be counting electoral votes in only 14 months! And yet the campaign is in full swing. Just shoot me.

4. Upset the apple tart I have personally done this, and it takes all the joy out of dessert. If you upset an apple cart, you are eliminating order and causing chaos.

5. Alcoholics Unanimous Alcoholics Anonymous protects the participants’ privacy.

6. A vast suppository of information  Yes, that has been written. Repository is so much more pleasant, not to mention accurate.

7. Lavatories of innovation  Probably written by the same person who wrote #6. Go with laboratories.

8. You could have knocked me over with a fender Pretty easy to do. To indicate extreme surprise, use a feather.

9. Tow the line I have never tried to tug a line of anything. If you toe the line, you come right up to the edge and follow rules.

10. Very close veins That they may be, and I am sorry for you. But the correct term is varicose, meaning swollen and twisted.

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Ten Commonly Misused Phrases

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Do you say or write any of these? Many smart people do, but their use can lead to embarrassment. Check out the correct form of each.

1. DEEP-SEEDED This should be “deep-seated,” meaning something that is established, e.g., a deep-seated anxiety.

2. FIRST COME, FIRST SERVE It needs to be “served.” If you arrive first, you will be served first. Otherwise, it looks as if you will have to serve everyone who comes after you.

3. I COULD CARE LESS If this is true, you care to some extent. If you “couldn’t” care less, you are saying you don’t care at all.

4. PROSTRATE CANCER “Prostrate” means lying face down. The prostate is a gland males have near the bladder.

5. SNEAK PEAK It’s a sneak “peek,” a secret, quick look. “Peak” means the summit or apex.

6. HONE IN “Hone” means to sharpen. You can hone your writing skills or your carving knives. But you need to “home” in on areas that need improvement; think of heading for home plate.

7. WET YOUR APPETITE “Wet” means to dampen. You need “whet” here, which means to sharpen. Smelling baking brownies probably doesn’t dampen your appetite but instead makes you drool in anticipation of that first bite.

8. EMIGRATED TO “Emigrate” is used with the preposition “from.” You emigrate from one country to another. “Immigrate” means to go somewhere and is used with the preposition “to.” Hordes of people are emigrating from Syria; they are immigrating to Western Europe.

9. BAITED BREATH I get the most revolting picture of someone who has just eaten a worm. That’s bait. The expression you want is “bated” breath. “Bated,” a word practically obsolete these days, is related to “abate,” which means to cease or reduce. If you are in hiding with bated breath, you are trying not to breathe because of danger or pressure.

10. PIECE OF MIND When you yell at someone in anger, you may be giving that person a piece of your mind. But for serenity, you want “peace” of mind.

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More Typos From Abroad

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Or since I’m writing this, perhaps the subject line should be More Typos From a Broad. Either way, here is some midweek entertainment—along with a reminder to proofread everything you write.

Please leave your values at the front desk. (Sign in a Paris elevator)

Before entering this mosque: Please remove your shoes. Please remove your socks. Please remove your hat. Thank you for your co-ordination. (Sign in Istanbul mosque)

Guests are requested to be as quiet a possible in their rooms after 11 pm so as not to disturb the quest in the other room. (Swedish hotel)

When You Are Engulfed in Flames (Name of a hilarious David Sedaris book, title based on a sign he saw in an elevator, educating guests what to do in case of fire)

Come Fartably Numb (Song title on pirated Pink Floyd CD, Hong Kong)

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Nouns That Add No Meaning

images Avoid Jargon! Common in the tech industries but definitely found throughout the corporate world, creating nouns from other parts of speech is rampant. The result is jargon. Some refer to this process as “nominalization,” but I resist using that term because it and many other —ization words are unnecessary, often pretentious and silly: incentivization, calendarization, colorization, idolization, utilization, underutilization, overutilization—you get the point.

Speaking of points, “data points” and “price points” abound these days. The word “point” adds no information. “Data” and “price” say it all.

An ad for Daedalus Books in the July 27th New Yorker states: “STILL THE BEST BROWSE IN BARGAIN BOOKS.” I’m going on a browse. Did you find any good books on your browse?

On so-called reality TV makeover shows, you are treated to “the big reveal.” Newscasters make rain into a “rainfall event,” or “shower activity.” And don’t forget an “emergency situation.” Airlines refer to “the boarding process.” Companies speak of “deliverables” and “inputs.”

Noun strings abound: “a hospital employee relations improvement protocol” (a plan to improve hospital employee relations). NASA continues to work on the “International Space Station astronaut living quarters module development project”: (improving the living quarters of ISS astronauts).

A final example before you and I both go crazy: “Underground Mine Worker Safety Protection Procedures”: (Procedures for protecting mine workers). When you write, proofread more than once: check for obvious grammar and punctuation errors, but also proofread specifically for wordiness. If a word adds no meaning, cut it out. Your readers will be grateful.

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Translating Corporate-Speak (aka Jargon)

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Recently, Marilyn Katzman wrote an article in the New York Times about the difficulties she encountered when re-entering the workforce after having been “reorganized,” (you know, “let go”) from her previous position. Flooded with corporate jargon, she finally kept a list of the jargon words and their conversational equivalents. Asked if she was ready for her “bilateral” (I would have thought it referred to a mammogram), she ultimately deduced it meant attending a face-to-face meeting with her boss. Then she wondered if you can still say “boss.”

When asked if she had “bandwidth,” Katzman figured out that all it meant was time to work on a project. Well, of course. She soon realized that “strategy” and “strategic” were extremely useful, adding weight and gravitas to anything to which they were attached. “Strategic planning” was a biggie—but doesn’t all planning involve strategy? She also understood that she was thought to be more intelligent when she threw “transparency” into conversations and emails. Katzman learned that “decks” had nothing to do with levels in a parking garage but rather referred to PowerPoint presentations. You knew that, right? At meetings she would write down examples of this new-to-her corporate jargon: “deliverables” showed up with great frequency, as did “ramping up” and “drilling down.”

Before too long, a colleague informed her of an actual game, “B.S. Bingo,” consisting of cards ruled off into squares. Each square contained one of these supposedly important words, and at meetings people would X off a square when they heard the word in it. When a whole row was marked off, the attendee got to jump up and yell, “B.S!” When I taught in the corporate world, this game hadn’t be produced yet (why didn’t I think of it!), but I would tell my groups about another version of this game I had heard of: except my people were encouraged, when they completed a row, to yell, “Bullshit!” I’m still wondering if anyone ever did it.

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Clichés in the News (and Maybe in Your Own Writing)

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Patrick La Forge of the New York Times has written about clichés frequently found in spoken or written news reports. I’ve seen many of these sneak into business writing. Try to avoid them; find a fresh way to make your point.

Plans are often “afoot.” Sounds silly, doesn’t it?

If something is “on the brink,” it’s likely “teetering.”

Often, war veterans are “grizzled.”

Gambles? They are “high stake.”

Forays or incursions are all too often “ill fated.”

When you don’t want to publicize something, you are “tightlipped.”

Are you wasting time? You are likely “frittering away” the hours.

And finally, car chases are invariably “high speed,” (except for the one back in the mid-1990s when OJ Simpson made his leisurely way down the San Diego Freeway in Los Angeles; now that was news).

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The —Ize Have It

I got an email today from Williams-Sonoma advertising a new attachment for the Kitchen Aid mixer. It was described as a “Handy multitasker that peels, cores, slices and spiralizes in seconds.” I must confess, I am not a spiralizer. I have made spirals, created spirals, but can’t remember the last time I spiralized anything.

To my eye and ear, many —ize verbs are unnecessary. Can’t we create incentives rather than incentivize? Prioritize? Set priorities. Have you ever bought a utilized car?

However, many verbs ending in —ize are so common that I can’t argue with their use: hospitalize, hypnotize, lionize, legalize, minimize, maximize, idealize, and personalize—among many others.

Stepping off my soapbox, I wonder if you can think of any time utilize conveys any meaning that use doesn’t. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

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Cliché Finder

Cliche Finder is a website (www.westegg.com) that has lists of random clichés. Here’s one I stumbled on just now. See if any of these sayings are near and dear to your heart (and there’s another cliché for you):

different strokes for different folks
to have and to hold
forewarned is forearmed
from A to Z
If you’re the last one to leave,turn out the lights.
warms the cockles of your heart (Did you know your heart had cockles?)
find yourself in a hole
turn turtle
no sweat
didn’t like the color of his money

What’s so wrong with clichés? The first time we heard any of them, we might well have thought, “Isn’t that clever!” But by the 20th time, they had become old hat and made us green around the gills because they were hoary with age, well past their pull-by date.

I think I’ve tortured you with enough clichés for one day. As William Safire, the late word maven once wrote, “Avoid clichés like the plague.”

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A Wonderful Podcast on “So”

Unknown I didn’t expect the response I got to yesterday’s post about the ubiquity of the introductory “So.” Either literally or in essence, the responses said, “GUILTY.” One person sent me the link to this entertaining and informative podcast on this very topic, and I pass it on to you. It’s about half an hour, but if you can squeeze in the time, it’s well worth your while: http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/lexicon_valley/2012/04/lexicon_valley_beginning_and_ending_all_of_our_thoughts_with_so_.html

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So This is At the Top of My Pet Peeve List

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I blogged about this topic once before, but it has become ubiquitous and is grating on my last synapse. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, look again at the subject line or listen to any interview on NPR: Why are people starting sentences with “So” when the word adds no meaning?

I’m not referring to the use of “so” as a conjunction, as in, “Elrod dyed his hair Raggedy Andy red so he would stand out in a crowd.” I don’t mean “so” used as a synonym for “therefore” or “as a result”: “Aaron overate all day; so naturally he wasn’t hungry at dinner time.”

I mean the use of “so” as a worthless filler, most frequently used at the beginning of an answer to a question:

Q. “How many people do you think will want to buy the new Apple iWatch?”
A. “So it’s hard to predict because many people have given up wearing watches and just use their tablets and phones to see what time it is.”

So I think “Well” as an introduction (that again carries no meaning and may at best buy thinking time before answering) has been supplanted by “So.” So notice today how many times you hear people say and write “So” at the beginning of sentences. So don’t be like me and snarkily say “So” back at them every time you hear or see it. So there.

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Do You Know These Words?

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These are male ecdysiasts.

I was moseying around the Internet this afternoon and came across lists of very unusual English words. Many I am familiar with, and I bet you are too: Klutz, hootenanny, malarkey, ornery, doozy, brouhaha, filibuster and skedaddle. But how about these?

Widdershins—counterclockwise
Troglodyte—someone who lives in a cave (implying cluelessness because so removed from the world)
Borborygm—the sound of your stomach gurgling
Gastromancy—telling fortunes from the rumbling of stomachs
Codswallop—nonsense
Formication—Wrong! It means the feeling that ants are crawling on you
Fard—Wrong again. It’s face paint or makeup
Furphy—a portable water container
Hemidemisemiquaver—in music, a 1/64 note
Bumbershoot—an umbrella
Oocephalus—an egghead, which is what you will be called if you use many of these words. But they are fun to know.

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Switching Letters Makes New Words

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This is a brid on a hros.

Do you cringe when you hear someone say “nucular”? How about “aks” or “perscription” or “perspectus”? I am among the cringers, yet it is possible that these mispronunciations may eventually result in the established forms of what most of us say today.

At one time “bird” was “brid,” “hros” was “horse,” and “waps” was “wasp.” Eventually, enough people switched the letters around so that the standard form became the words we use today.

Who knew, right?

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Jargon

imagesJargon is a special kind of cliché, specific to a particular profession. Every profession has words understood by members of that group, and I don’t have too much of a problem when that language is confined within the group. At times it may even help colleagues to communicate with each other, although clear, simple English is fully up to the task.

I object, however, when that jargon is used to pollute the rest of the world. It may be largely incomprehensible to many people and is a way to keep outsiders out of the anointed inner circle.

I will pick on lawyers now, just because I am most familiar with the language of their profession. Why is it necessary to use jargon such as the following?

Enclosed herein please find; as per our previous conversation; to wit; aforementioned; the favor of a reply is requested, ad nauseum. It would be no less professional and far more comprehensible to write Here is; as we discussed; specifically; already cited; please respond.

People who use jargon is general conversation or writing think they are being professional. In fact, they come across as pompous, bureaucratic and somewhat foolish. At least that’s my take on this topic.

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A Very Common Redundancy

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“Where’s the shoe department at?”
“Did she tell you where the meeting is at?”
“How can I find where my evaluation is at?”

When you use “where” in a sentence, you are referring to location. Therefore, sticking an “at” into the sentence is redundant. All you need is:

“Where is the shoe department?”
“Did she tell you where the meeting is?”
“Where can I find my evaluation?”

I’m wishing for just one day when I hear the “at” tag fewer than 10 times. Is that asking too much?

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What Some People Do to the English Language!

In case you’ve been thinking you aren’t particularly eloquent, read the following quotations. You’ll recover your self-confidence immediately. Thanks to my friend Jill J. for sending me these howlers.
(On September 17, 1994, Alabama’s Heather Whitestone was selected as Miss America 1995.)Question: If you could live forever, would you and why?
Answer: “I would not live forever, because we should not live forever, because if we were supposed to live forever, then we would live forever, but we cannot live forever, which is why I would not live forever.”
–Miss Alabama in the 1994 Miss  USA contest.
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“Whenever I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can’t help but cry. I mean I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff.”
–Mariah Carey
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“Smoking kills. If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life,”
— Brooke Shields, during an interview to become spokesperson for a Federal anti-smoking campaign
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“I’ve never had major knee surgery on any other part of my body.”
–Winston Bennett,  University   of  Kentucky   basketball forward.
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“Outside of the killings, Washington has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.”
–Mayor Marion Barry,  Washington, DC
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“That lowdown scoundrel deserves to be kicked to death by a jackass, and I’m just the one to do it.”
–A Congressional candidate in  Texas
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“Half this game is ninety percent mental.”
–Philadelphia Phillies manager Danny Ozark
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“It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.”
–Al Gore, Vice President
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“I love  California. I practically grew up in Phoenix.”
— Dan Quayle
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“We’ve got to pause and ask ourselves: How much clean air do we need?”
–Lee Iacocca
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“The word “genius” isn’t applicable in football. A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein.”
–Joe Theisman, NFL football quarterback and sports analyst.
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“We don’t necessarily discriminate. We simply exclude certain types of people.”
— Colonel Gerald Wellman, ROTC Instructor.
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“Your food stamps will be stopped effective March 1992 because we received notice that you passed away. May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances.”
–Department of Social Services, Greenville , South Carolina
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“Traditionally, most of Australia’s imports come from overseas.”
–Keppel Enderbery
,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,”If somebody has a bad heart, they can plug this jack in at night as they go to bed and it will monitor their heart throughout the night. And the next morning, when they wake up dead, there’ll be a record.”
–Mark S. Fowler, FCC Chairman

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Just a Reminder

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I recently spent time with a person who qualified “unique”: things were “very unique” or “rather unique” and even “extremely unique.”

Did I say something? No. Did I want to? Did I ever. “Unique” means one of a kind. Nothing else like it (whatever “it” is) exists. Therefore, it can’t be qualified. Either something is unique or it isn’t. Qualifying “unique” is  rather like being a little bit pregnant.

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Are You Tense?

For people learning English, our plethora of verb tenses if confusing and often overwhelming. From native speakers, the most common error I see and hear is with the verb “go.” Yep, simple, everyday “go.”

You know the past tense is “went”: I went, you went, he went, she went, we went, they went. But when you are in a situation in which you want to describe an action you have or had done before, you need the verb “gone,” as in “I had gone to see that movie but wanted to see it again.” What I hear so frequently is “I had/have went.” Shudder!

“Has” and “have” comprise the past participle form of verbs. If you use any version of those, including “will have” or “could have,” you will need to use “gone.”

Here is a short video from “The Big Bang Theory,” sent to me by VMD. Remember, it’s a joke; these tenses don’t really exist. But I think you’ll enjoy the creativity of the so-called grammarians you’ll see:

http://www.cbs.com/shows/big_bang_theory/video/4861723D-9A3C-9D15-AE2F-0BF43322F381/the-big-bang-theory-back-to-the-future-grammar/

 

 

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Are You Using These Phrases Incorrectly?

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Today I bring for your edification today the following phrases that are often said/written incorrectly, probably because people may not have seen them in print but go by what they hear (or think they hear):

http://www.buzzfeed.com/michaelblackmon/17-really-common-phrases-youve-probably-been-saying-wrong?bffb&utm_term=4ldqpgp&s=mobile#10bv1hc

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Cut It Out

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Here are some commonly used (not utilized!) words you can eliminate in almost every case:

Event: A sales event is a sale.

Facilities: Manufacturing facilities are plants or factories.

Conditions: Stormy weather conditions are storms.

Activity: Rainfall activity is rain.

Basis: Working on a volunteer basis is volunteering.

Operation: A cleanup operation is cleaning up.

You can see these words add no meaning, carry no weight. After you finish writing, go to your Find function and put in these clichéd words. Read each sentence where you find them and see if you can’t eliminate the deadwood. In almost every case you’ll be able to cut it out.

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About About

For some reason, about is rarely seen in business writing.  Is it thought to be too common, too ordinary?  I have no idea why it is shunned, but I’m encouraging you to rediscover its charms.

Here are the words you love to use in about’s place:

Regarding

With regard to  (not with regards to; regards are what you give to

Broadway)

With respect to, In respect to

Concerning

As to

Apropos of

In reference to

These all tend to sound extremely formal.  Most of your business writing should be in a conversational voice, the way you would talk to someone sitting across your desk from you.  Don’t be afraid to sound human.  Your writing will be clear, and people will enjoy reading what you write.

 

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Sea Change

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Surely you have noticed that “changes” exist no longer. Every change has been transformed into a “sea change.” Here is the first noted use of the phrase (it has since lost its hyphen) from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (1611):

Full fathom five thy father lies,

        Of his bones are coral made:

       Those are pearls that were his eyes:

        Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

As you can see, that segment describes a major transformation, which is, indeed, what “sea change” means. Switching your brand of toothpaste is not a sea change, nor is taking your vacation in August rather than in June, as you have done until now.

“Sea change” has become a buzzword, particularly common in politics and advertising. Because of its frequent use, it will likely become the go-to phrase to indicate any change, no matter how trivial. You may be OK with that; I’m not. Not yet.

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So What?

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I think I may have ranted about this fairly recently, but I’d like you to consciously listen to people around you today or—if you can stomach it—this week and become aware of how many sentences are being started with the word “So.”

I am now seeing this fairly often in writing as well, which makes me not happy at all. “So” legitimately means “as a result”: “Benjamin failed his driving test twice, so he is very nervous he won’t pass on his final chance to take it again.”

That, however, is not how the word is flooding discourse these days. It’s being used as the very casual, conversational beginning of sentences:

So did I tell you about the new manager in Human Resources?

So a new series is starting on HBO tonight.

So I’m wondering when my niece is going to finish college.

So the new plan is to limit department meetings to 30 minutes.

In each of those sentences, the word does no work. You can erase it and no meaning is lost, no confusion ensues. Pay attention in the next few days. Good chance you even will catch yourself saying “So” when it is extraneous. If it carried meaning, I would have no problem with it. However, it’s just deadwood. Chop it out.

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More Favorite Clichés From Journalism

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Thanks to CG for sending me an enormous list of journalism clichés compiled by Carlos Lozada at the Washington Post. I’ve put quite a few of them on my blog recently, but here’s a new crop to, shall we say, enjoy. Lozada finds these by scanning the newspaper, but if you work in the corporate world they will be very familiar to you. Once these clichés are unleashed, they tend to spread throughout the land, infiltrating advertising, the classroom, the courtroom, the boardroom, even so-called areas of entertainment.

You may be taken by a new-to-you turn of phrase. Social media easily encourage their use. Within mere days, words that seemed fresh and new are suddenly old hat, so last year, five minutes ago. They have become a cliché, to be avoided like the plague.

Here, for your avoidance, are many. I assume they will all look very familiar to you:

If you will (actually, I won’t)

A cautionary tale

Needless to say (then don’t say it)

Suffice it to say (if it suffices, then just say it)

This is not your father’s [anything]

[Anything] 2.0 (or 3.0, or 4.0…)

At a crossroads (unless referring to an actual intersection)

The powers that be

Outside the box (describes creative thinking — with a cliché)

A favorite Washington parlor game

Don’t get me wrong

Yes, Virginia, there is a [something]

Christmas came early for [someone]

Chock full (“full” is fine by itself)

Last-ditch effort (unless ditch-digging is involved)

Midwife (as a verb, unless involving childbirth)

Cue the [something]

Call it [something]

Pity the poor [something]

It’s the [something], stupid

Imagine (as the first word in your lede)

Time will tell if [something]

Palpable sense of relief (unless you can truly touch it)

Sigh of relief

Plenty of blame to go around

Rorschach test (unless it is a real one)

Turned a blind eye

Underscores

Cycle of violence (unless referring to a particularly vicious Schwinn)

Searing indictment

Broken system (or, “the [anything] system is broken”)

Famously (if readers know it, you don’t need to tell them it is famous; if they don’t know it, you just made them feel stupid)

The Other (or “otherize,” “otherization” and other variations)

Effort (as a verb)

 

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More Journalism Clichés

UnknownThese were compiled by Carlos Lozada, of the Washington Post. Clichés are new and interesting when we first hear them, but by the fifth time we are yawning. Here are just a few more of the 135 he listed. Avoid these like the plague (joke):

What happens in [somewhere] stays in [somewhere]

Oft-cited

Little-noticed

Closely watched

Hastily convened

Much ballyhooed

Shrouded in secrecy

Since time immemorial

Tipping point

Inflection point

Point of no return

 

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Verbing and Nouning

Verbing and nouning are favorite pastimes of so many writers. Surely you know what these two words mean. No?

Verbing takes a verb and turns it into a noun: James, that was a brave ask you put forth at the meeting this morning, and because of your bravery we scored a huge get.

As an old “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoon pointed out years ago, “Verbing weirds language.”

Conversely, nouning takes what is usually a noun and verbifies it (as I just did): James suggested we conference about the budget this afternoon. We need to find a solve for our fiscal woes. We all remember how James orchestrated last year’s recover, so we hope he can do it again.

People use this kind of language thinking it makes them look important and knowledgeable. It doesn’t. It makes them look pompous and ridiculous. Straightforward, simple English is best.

 

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Journalism Clichés

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Carlos Lozada at the Washington Post listed clichés frequently seen in the media, clichés he would like to abolish. Here is a portion of the phrases he finds annoying and ready for destruction. Do you agree?

Christmas came early for [someone]

Chock full (“full” is just fine by itself)

Last-ditch effort (unless ditch-digging is involved)

Midwife (as a verb, unless involving childbirth)

Cue the [something]

Call it [something]

Pity the poor [something]

It’s the [something], stupid

Imagine (as the first word in your lede)

Time will tell if [something]

Palpable sense of relief (unless you can truly touch it)

Sigh of relief

Plenty of blame to go around

Rorschach test (unless it is a real one)

Turned a blind eye

I’m voting with Lozada.

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What Kind of Word Nerd Are You?

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I found this quiz posted at http://www.ragan.com, written by Laura Hale Brockway . You probably can guess my score (and I’m damned proud of it!).

What kind of word nerd are you?

Step 1. Answer the following yes/no questions. (Be honest. This is a judgment-free zone.)

1. Do you subscribe to one or more style guides (or have one or more style guides on your desk)?

2. Do you catch typos all around you, even when you’re not looking for them?

3. Do you find yourself correcting the grammar in the books you read to your kids? (“Junie B. Jones” is the worst.)

4. Can you quote from “Eats, Shoots and Leaves?”  [Note from Judi: Yes, but I also wrote to the editor because the book contains about 10 major errors, most not attributable to the author’s English upbringing.]

5. Have you had more than one heated argument about the use of the serial (Oxford) comma?

6. Does seeing 1990’s or 30’s drive you to drink?

7. Do you feel an immediate sense of camaraderie with anyone who uses “comprise” correctly?

8. Can you spell “minuscule,” “inadvertent,” “supersede,” and “ophthalmologist” correctly? (Could you have done so before I just showed them to you?)

9. Is the hyphen your least favorite punctuation mark?

10. Do you use the word “decimate” correctly?

11. Do you giggle when you end a sentence with a preposition and know why it’s acceptable to do so?

12. Do people refuse to play Words with Friends or Scrabble with you?

Step 2. Count the questions to which you answered “yes.”

Word Nerd Elite—You answered “yes” to 10 to 12 questions.

You are in the upper echelon of word nerdiness. Very likely you are the primary person in your department or company whom others ask when they have a grammar or punctuation question. You may have even played dueling style guides with a co-worker. Finding typos on signs or in movie credits might feel like a victory for you. Welcome to the club. We meet for drinks every month on penultimate Wednesdays.

Word Nerd Moderate—You answered “yes” to 5 to 9 questions.

You exhibit a few of the telltale signs of word nerdiness. You probably know and use one style guide very well. Though you know the arguments for and against its use, you’re lukewarm on the serial comma. You have a pretty easy time keeping your composure when playing Scrabble.

Word Nerd Lite (or should that be light?)—You answered “yes” to 0 to 4 questions.

Other than one or two minor eccentricities, you’re not really a word nerd at all. You leave it to others to find typos and argue about word usage. Perhaps you’ve read “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” and you remember the joke about the panda. You haven’t quite memorized your style guide, but you have a few key sections highlighted.

Good job!

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George Carlin on “Soft Language”

imagesDuring the many years I gave corporate writing seminars, I showed an excerpt about the degradation of the English language from one of George Carlin’s shows. My goal was to get participants to think about the words they used, to eliminate the rampant jargon and to say what they meant as clearly and concisely as possible.

Carlin gave many examples. He began by saying, “Sometime in my life, I wasn’t notified about this, toilet paper became bathroom tissue. Sneakers became running shoes. False teeth became dental appliances. Medicine became medication. Information became Directory Assistance. The dump became the landfill. Car crashes became automobile accidents. Partly cloudy became partly sunny. Motels became motor lodges…and constipation became occasional irregularity.”

He said, “Look at him…. He’s 90 years young,” demonstrating our fear of death in this country. He observed that “People no longer die: they pass away or expire, like a magazine subscription. People don’t say they’re getting old; they say they’re getting older, as if it will last a little longer.”

He concluded his rant by stating, “I’m telling you, some of this language makes me want to vomit. Well, maybe not vomit. It makes me want to engage in an involuntary personal protein spill.”

George Carlin was unique, the thinking person’s comedian. I may never forgive him for expiring.

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Too! Much! Emphasis!

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

So often I see writing in which the author capitalizes words that are merely common nouns, not proper nouns (the official names of people, places or things). Someone explained to me yesterday that he deliberately does this because those common nouns are special to him and he wants to call attention to them. People frequently use boldface and italics for the same reason. As if that isn’t enough, they pepper their prose with exclamation points.

Lewis Thomas, who has several books of fine and fascinating short essays, in a piece called “Notes on Punctuation” compares the epidemic of exclamation points to someone’s small child jumping up and down on the sofa in the middle of the living room, shouting, “Look at me! Look at me!”

Thomas’ point, and not of the exclamation variety, is that as writers we need to make our words provide the emphasis. Adding capitalization, boldface, italics and unnecessary punctuation only detracts from our message and annoys the reader. Annoyed readers will move on. You want to lure them in, not chase them away.

In Benjamin Franklin’s day, rules of writing had not been codified. Read his entertaining Autobiography and you will see Words randomly Capitalized. (Annoying, right? But do read it; it’s a wonderful book.) We cut him slack because anything went in his day. Now we try to be more subtle. Proofread your writing for errant capitalization, boldface, italics and exclamation points and then get rid of them. You’ll hold your readers’ interest.

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January 27, 2014 · 11:30 AM

I Am So Sick of This!

What is it with many conservative members of the Republican party?  Or should I call it the Republic party?  That would be the equivalent of what they call the Democratic party: “the Democrat party.”  If they hate us, let them think “Ick!” and put the —ic at the end of the word.  Is that so hard?

My guess it’s a way to demean the opposition. I first noticed it coming from Limbaugh many years ago. It has spread widely.  Sometimes in my car I will put on the bloviating blimp just to see what is causing his neck veins to bulge on that particular day, but I can rarely stay tuned for more than a couple of minutes (which always seems to be sufficient time for several “Democrat” excoriations).

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Words I’d Like to Banish

Michigan’s Lake Superior State University puts out an annual list of words they want to banish. Here’s their website with the 2012 list; you can also find lists from previous years and see what has stuck and which have gone to the verbal graveyard. 

http://www.lssu.edu/banished/archive/2012.php

These words are a few from the current list:

AMAZING

BABY BUMP

MAN CAVE

GINORMOUS

THANK YOU FOR YOUR COOPERATION—I always preach against this in my classes. Here’s the situation: You have told someone to do something that person does not want to do.  To sweeten the deal, you add these saccharine words, even though the other person knows you are standing there with your hands on your hips and are stomping your foot. You’re not fooling anyone.  Thank the other person sincerely:  “I know this is difficult, and I really appreciate your doing this for me.”

To these words I would add my personal list of major annoyances:

FISCAL CLIFF—I swear, if I heard this one more time I was going to find the nearest actual cliff and take a flying leap.

AWESOME—Please, I beg you, find another adjective. It means “to inspire awe.” Surely, not every burger you eat or reality show you watch does this.

CZAR—This just means a bigshot appointed to, usually, a political position.  This person is rarely the equivalent of Peter the Great.

GURU—Every reasonably bright person today is a “guru.” Not really. They are just people who may know a little more about a subject than you do.  But there are subjects you know more about than the so-called gurus do, and that doesn’t make you a guru (unless you are sitting high on a mountain in India).

PRICE POINT—This drives me crazy.  It’s just a fancy way to say “price” and doesn’t mean anything more.  Lose the “point.”

LIKE—It’s like an interjection that like is inserted like every couple of words and like drives your listeners like insane.

STARTING SENTENCES WITH “SO”—So this has reached epidemic proportions.  So I don’t know who started it or why, but it’s everywhere.  So try to catch yourself and avoid doing this.

TO GIFT—Just GIVE.  “Gifting” doesn’t mean more or bigger or better.  When you give a gift, you give.

TO GROW—I believe this began with Paul Hawken’s excellent book, Growing Your Business.  But all it means is “to increase.”  “Grow” has taken over like viral moss and is used when anything is getting bigger or better.  Time to spray the weedkiller.

STRATEGIC—If something is deemed to have any amount of importance, however small, it is labeled “strategic.”  The most common use is “strategic plan.”  Think about it:  every plan involves thinking about what might happen as a result of implementing it.  That involves strategy.  Ergo, every plan is strategic by nature. Another word to put in very cold storage.

Do you have favorite annoying words and phrases you’d like to have disappear?  Send me your candidates.

 

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Nix Actually

Have you noticed people relying on actually to fill their sentences?  If we can assume what you are saying is truthful, you have no need to add that word of assurance.

On one of the Sunday morning talk shows yesterday, Randi Weingarten, the current head of the American Federation of Teachers (she is also a labor leader and an attorney), used the word so often that she had me yelling it back at her every time I heard it. It’s an annoying verbal tic that adds no content.

Years ago, the young granddaughter of a friend of mine was using actually repeatedly.  When my friend asked her what the word meant, her granddaughter thought hard and then answered, “Actually, I don’t know.”

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