The do’s and don’ts of using judgmental words

When it comes to certain words, terms and phrases, your message can get lost. Here’s how to avoid misleading—and alienating—your audience with your word choice.

Judgmental words creep into newspaper copy, broadcast segments, social media posts and presidential debates.

Although they’re not always intentional, they can leave an indelible mark and badly distort your message.

These “judgments” can be adjectives, phrases or verb tenses. They’re often tucked into a news story, an editorial or part of an otherwise neutral delivery.

Here are a few examples:

  • A police blotter story of a wayward teen who embarks on a crime spree despite coming from a “good family.”

  • A gentrification chronicle of an urban neighborhood once known for its “seedy” street corners.

  • The city transplants who befriend the “crazies” in their new community.

These words add value judgments to our writing and often say more about the authors than their subjects.

“Seedy,” for example, might be used to describe a dilapidated area that’s overrun with crime, but its “unwholesome” or “disreputable” connotations could imply a shameful moral decay instead of a battle with generational poverty.

Then versus now

Our collective view of what’s considered offensive or judgmental is evolving. FREE GUIDE: 10 punctuation essentials.

You probably wouldn’t see—or use—the word “bum” in reference to a homeless man anymore, but we have seen criticisms emerge around other words. The term “illegal immigrant” became the subject of heated debate in recent years as many decried it as a pejorative descriptor that declared all immigrants without documentation criminals.

The term “sex worker” has begun to replace “prostitute,” which some dismiss as demeaning and stigmatizing.

There also has been a push to rethink the use of the word “addict,” which some say degrades drug abusers by reducing them to their dependency. That discussion surfaced again with Prince’s death this year.

The PR side

Words such as “should” or “need” can be off-putting when used to encourage certain behaviors.

Many editors—and PR pros—advise against making broad assumptions about readers and viewers. In the same way those words can offend and alienate a brand’s media coverage, they can also offend and alienate target audiences of marketing and public relations materials.

Weed out judgmental words from promotional writing. A mortgage, for example, that is backed by borrowers in “better neighborhoods” might sound innocuous to some, but it could feel like a value judgment to others.

With the frenetic pace and boundless reach of social media, we often don’t know whom our message is reaching nor how it might be refracted through the prism of someone’s life experience.

Although you might think you’re conveying a certain message, an insensitive word choice could lead someone in your customer base to shift. Instead of forming opinions about the merits of your offering, he or she might draw unflattering conclusions about you or the culture of your organization.

A little attention to subtext can go a long way.

Julie Goodman is a senior writer at JConnelly, a communications and marketing agency based in New York. A version of this article first appeared on JConnelly’s blog.

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