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words & phrases never to use (& some to use sparingly)

Auntie Barbara's Writing Guide

(Before we get started, n.b. (nota bene, note this well; it's important!) forget all jargon that smacks of poor Dilbert's "superiors," even if it is used by people that you otherwise admire. The rest of the world laughs at that kind of jargon. Sorry to be snotty, but it's true, and I don't know if anyone else will tell you the inside scoop except your Auntie Barbara, because she loves you.)


There are certain phrases that should never be used, in any situation.

They mark the user as belonging to social groups with which you don't want to be associated (e.g., people who try to sell awful things to people who don't want them).

(Forgive me for my bluntness in dealing with these! If you don't yet find the phrases repugnant, that's just because your poor ears and aesthetic sensibilities have had to develop calluses in order to survive.)


Some of the worst offenders:

. "In today's world,.." Eeeeeuw.

. "has strong opinions/beliefs about" So what does "strong" mean? "Passionately held beliefs"? "Radical beliefs"? "Beliefs that he or she wrote about"?

. "It is interesting to note. . ." One's least favorite pseudo-scholarly phrase.

. "at this point in time. . ." Aaaaargh.

. "Schedule-wise," "cost-wise," " anything-wise"

. "Alienation is when somebody feels that. . ." Ouch! Ouch! Definitions are not points in time. At least this is not as horrible as:

. "Alienation is where somebody feels that. . ." OWWW! Instead, "The term 'alienation' means a state of mind in which . . ."Or "Alienation is a way of living at odds with oneself . . ." (Don't confuse "where" with "whereby.")


In general, in fact, avoid any phrase that ISN'T NECESSARY. Save the paper.

"I feel that what the author was trying to say was, basically, . . ."

Does this person feel it or think it? Was the author only trying, i.e. (id est, that is) unsuccessfully, to say it? In most cases, not. Does the "basically" serve any purpose at all, other than a hedge?

If you are ever tempted to "pad" a paper with this kind of thing to reach a minimum length, RESIST the temptation! Any professor worth his or her salt will prefer a paper that is too short to one that positively causes aesthetic pain.


Some terms are confused and combined with each other to form hybrids more terrifying than anything on Dr. Moreau's island.

. "Irregardless" (from the two fine words "regardless" and "irrespective")

But in English, as in math and logic, a double negative is equivalent to a positive. In English, negatives operate like toggle switch.

(NB: This is of course NOT the case for all languages. In Spanish, e.g., adding one negative to another operates more like adding an additional shake of the head; it simply emphasizes the original negation.)


Phrases and Words Only to Be Used with Great Care

Certain terms have been misused so badly in the past few decades that they should be avoided except when needed for their original, PRECISE, meaning. These are, viz. (namely),

This refers to someone who gets paid for his or her work, as opposed to an amateur (etymological root: Latin, amo, amare, to love, so an amateur is someone who does a certain kind of work for pure love of it).

It is acceptable to use the term "professional" as an adjective to describe people in lines of work also practiced by many amateurs, in order to distinguish a professional from an amateur (e.g. "professional strippers").

In some cases, e.g. "professional musician," this distinction also implies reliable competence, as opposed to an "amateur musician" who may or may not be excellent.

It may also be used as a noun to refer to doctors, nurses, lawyers, architects, and others whose work requires a great deal of specialized training.

"Professional salesperson," "professional business consultant," etc. are NOT acceptable phrases. (And beware of anyone who describes himself or herself as a "telemarketing experience enhancer professional.") No one pursues these activities for love, so there is no need to distinguish these people from amateurs in their fields; there are none. Further, the implication of "reliable competence" is meaningless here.

The phrase "professional health care provider" is acceptable, if it means "licensed health care provider."

The implicit justification for the misuse of "professional" seems to be the belief that "if they can make a living at it, then the market has proven that they are competent." The market, however, has damn little to do with quality (e.g. the market success of many pop stars, the CEO of Disney who was so incompetent that he had to be bribed into early retirement, the continuing sales of dubious weight loss products, etc., etc.), and so the justification fails.

(Some perfectly reasonable people still misuse the term "professional," or worse, "professionalism," to refer to such good things as "being fair" and "being courteous." Thus, they say, one shouldn't insult or demean coworkers or clients because that isn't "professional." But surely they wouldn't condone being obnoxious to their spouses/partners or kids or neighbors, either, even though they're not in their "professional" roles at home! Silly people. They're not giving themselves enough credit.

It's best to call these good things simply "being fair," "being courteous," etc..

This is also more fair to, say, the "non-professional" (e.g. an as-yet-unemployed former gang member, or an elderly homemaker) who nonetheless always conducts himself or herself admirably, with courtesy, fairness, and honor.)

We are not "professionals." We are far more than that. We are civilized people. We are intellectuals, and intellectuals in the making.


. "Appropriate"

This is a fine example of nasty semi-literate "Biz-Speak" (or more accurately, "Biz-Speak Lite"). It sounds as if there were lots of content in it, and there is none. It sounds vaguely Latinate, as well, so that it intimidates people who'd like to ask about what it actually MEANS in a given context. They will thus often not insist on hearing the details that they deserve to be told.



.  "Issue"

Is the "issue" at hand a question, in which case we seek an answer? (E.g. the "issue of mercury fillings possibly correlating to health problems")

Or is it a dispute, in which case we seek a resolution of some kind? (E.g. the "issue of land for peace in the Middle East")

Or is it a general area of information and hypothesis, in which case we needn't seek anything but further knowledge?

(This loose usage seems to have begun with some psychotherapists' using "issues" as a tacky euphemism for "problem" in a sad and ill-fated attempt to appear non-judgmental. "Regarding your bed-wetting issue, . . " Now we find it even in some sloppy textbooks. Ignore them. )

This word can be used precisely, e.g. the issue of public policy regarding health care, but usually isn't. (It is also a verb, as in "water issuing from the spring," and as a noun it can be synonymous with "offspring," as in "everything's still fine, even if your issue doesn't kiss you every morning.")


. "Basically"

No, no, no, no, no. If you must use a word meaning "to do with the basics" of something, at least use a synonym, e.g. "fundamentally,"

Incidentally, neither of these words are a fancy way of saying "kinda." If you need a qualification, use a precise one if at all possible. For example,

"Usually . . . " but not always.

"In general . . ." versus "in particular," and ignoring for the moment all the exceptions and qualifications.

"Most . . ." but not all.

"In summary . . ." or "To summarize . . ." rather than all the details.

"It seems to me that . . ." but I'm not claiming to be absolutely certain.

"During this era/period/whatever . . ." In contrast to "before that era, and after that era, . . ."

"In this area . . ."(geographical area, area of study, whatever) as opposed to everywhere, and about everything, etc.


Certain other terms are frequently misused.

. "Momentarily"

does NOT mean "in a moment," i.e. "shortly," but rather "FOR a moment." "We will be landing momentarily" is wrong usage, unless the pilot is intending to take off again immediately. (Beware, your pilot may be illiterate!)

Proper usage is: "You may feel a sting momentarily during the vaccine."

. "Hopefully"

is an adverb, and as such must modify a verb. Proper usage is: "Puggsley looked at me hopefully."

It is NOT a substitute for "I hope that . . ." or "It is to be hoped that . . ." as in "The computer will hopefully be fixed by 5:00."

(Yes, we all fall into that when speaking, but we should know how to avoid it in writing.)


. "Disinterested"

does NOT mean "uninterested," i.e. "bored."

Instead, it means "not having any vested INTERESTS in the matter,"

i.e. (that is), "unprejudiced," "unbiased," objective."

One wants a disinterested judge and jury if one is being tried in court.

One does not want an uninterested judge and jury -- they might doze through one's defense.


Finally, certain gushy terms are over-used. Avoid them whenever you can.

These include:

. "Very"

. "Truly"

. "Great" thinker, leader, etc..



And now, as promised, the link to Boss-Speak Bingo!

This is a funny BBC story from June of 2008 about everyone's least favorite management-ese. It includes a bingo card with some of the most cringe-inducing phrases of British Boss-Speak, in Adobe pdf format. People really are discreetly playing this, at least in London!


Sometimes I've got sloppy, and had to face natural justice. Learn from my mistakes!



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