Someday technology will reach a point where our helmet-mounted computers will sound an alarm whenever we even think about typing a cliché.
Meanwhile, a low-tech resource abounds for those seeking to avoid tired usages, bureaucratic phrases, corporate jargon and plain old confused English: other writers.
Ask fellow wordsmiths what words and phrases they eschew, and you may find yourself reconsidering usages that hadn’t bothered you before. At least that’s what many writers are telling us.
For a recent Ragan.com article, we issued a call among the writers at Gotham Ghostwriters for their most hated clichés and bad usages. Jocular souls that we are, we called these “vampire words,” a term we borrowed from Copyblogger.
A Perseid shower of e-mails came streaking in too late for our deadline. But in the interest of avoiding bureaucratic and jargon-infested prose, here is another round of pet peeves from some pros:
Writer Bruce Tallerman says he has long enjoyed making fun of corporate-speak. “It just gets better and funnier,” he writes.
His favorites include window of opportunity, blue sky (as a verb), and out of pocket (“I still have no idea what this means” he says). He also would banish reach out, as in, “Can you please reach out to Bill?”
Several respondents want a sunset clause on the use of at the end of the day.
“If I hear one more person say ‘at the end of the day,’ I think I'll throw myself off a building,” writes one. “But not until the day is over.”
Bob Yeager would spike arguably and going forward, while Boe Workman would jettison it goes without saying (“then why say it?” he wonders), taking a deep dive into a topic (“how deep, and why dive?”) and get to the bottom of a matter.
“I can't decide, is it better to take a deep dive, jump in with both feet (as opposed to jumping in with one foot), or just dip my toe into the water?” Workman writes.
Confused word siblings.
Several writers objected to the confusion of word siblings, those similar words that are sometimes mistaken for each other. “What about confusing averse and adverse?” writes Frank Santopadre of Comedywise. “Or am I the only one vexed by this?”
Paul Brians’ “Common Errors in English Usage” explains:
“The word ‘adverse’ turns up most frequently in the phrase ‘adverse circumstances,’ meaning difficult circumstances, circumstances which act as an adversary; but people often confuse this word with ‘averse,’ a much rarer word, meaning having a strong feeling against, or aversion toward.”
Writer Brooke Stoddard hates it “when people use comprise when they mean compose.”
In a Ragan.com article, Ragan Executive Editor Rob Reinalda (a.k.a. Word Czar) offers this:
To be avoided is the misuse of comprise, notably in the phrase “is comprised of,” when “is composed of” is meant. … The whole comprises the parts, not the other way around. Remember it this way: New England comprises Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.
If you want to go with the components first and conclude with the entirety, use constitute. In that case, please start with Connecticut, which is, after all, the ConstitutionState.
Rosemary Carstens keeps a sticky note on her computer to list words to review in her copy. These include seems, just, though, as and so.
“Since I often write for the arts, it's a constant struggle to come up with fresh ways to comment on art work,” she says.
Maggie Paley offers up iconic and legendary (“my two least favorite words”), while Krista Kafer warns us to watch for via, very, and etc.
“When wearing my editor hat, I always remove them without giving the author a reason,” she writes. “Over time the writer should figure out via the red ink that the editor is very annoyed with such words, etc.”
Banishing unique and eclectic
Liz Bet strikes unique and eclectic. Surely if the subject deserves these descriptions, it is possible to find a more descriptive way of conveying the idea, she suggests.
Steve Hirsch asks for the word folks to be banned outside of quotes. “Some years ago I told the team of reporters and editors working for me that if I saw that word again in straight news coverage, the person responsible would be fired summarily,” he writes. “Naturally, for the next week, every story had multiple usages of the word, but finally, I think my message got through.”
He adds that years ago he heard that an editor “announced that if he saw the word ‘upcoming’ in a story again, he would be ‘downcoming’ and the reporter would be ‘outgoing.’ I had never really thought about it before but was convinced from that day forth.”
Deni Robey finds important overused, and any sentence that ends in just that is “a complete waste of ink, as in: “We do just that. They aim to do just that.”
Sue Treiman says that as a business writer, she avoids these words, which people use with surprising frequency: impactful, followership,thought leader, and value-added. D.Z. Stone would throw in the word optics, and others would toss out incent, incentivize and disincent.
Toni Kamins would extirpate a myriad of, and Tracy Ivie has had it up to here with evocative and leverage.
Elizabeth Smith writes that certain words and phrases often used in memoirs and fiction can “make me wilt, as they are such a waste of space and time and energy. I delete and change with savage fury.”
Among these are:
- He stood there.
- I looked at her.
- He shrugged his shoulders or (believe it or not) he frowned with his mouth.
- I swallowed (“used way too often to show anxiety or self-consciousness”).
Zachary Janowski writes that too many otherwise good writers use palpable. “To me, it is similar to saying something is obvious or noticeable,” he says.
From whence it came?
Julianne Whitney winces at whence: “I would like to send that word whence it came, not from whence it came.”
Jordan Tamagni offers up these writerly sins:
- That is why.
- Make no mistake (President Obama’s speechwriters, please note).
- But there is more that we must do.
- Confusing which and that.
- Any mixed metaphor.
“Make no mistake, I have used all of these on countless occasions,” Tamagni confesses. “I have tried to stop, but there is more that we must do to ensure that such mistakes occur less frequently.”
But author Michael Soussan, a former United Nations whistleblower, worries about stamping so many words and phrases as verboten. Often the problem isn’t the expressions themselves, but “people are exploiting these poor innocent words precisely in order to say nothing while still appearing to say something.”
He recalls having to translate sentences like the following into meaningful text at the U.N.:
"What has become clear, at this point in time, is that all parties involved in the oversight of multilateral sustainable development initiatives, including, inter-alia, UNIFLOP, UNDO, and WTF...”
You get the idea.
But lest we become paralyzed by our fears of the sneers of our colleagues, J.R. Branson has compassion for the writer who is trying to write tightly and briefly dips into the trite.
What Branson hates more is “when writers are more concerned with showing how clever they are and how they can properly use obscure words.”