The idea that it’s better to be succinct dates back at least as far as Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief: your noble son is mad.
More recently, a high school senior made headlines for his response to a college application question asking students to discuss their favorite word. His essay—which earned him admission to the University of Virginia—read, “My favorite word is Brevity. It’s concise.”
The admissions officer who received this gem, perhaps on a day when she was feeling nauseous from slogging through the huge stack of applications lauding “Originality” and “Motivation,” can be forgiven for giving it the thumbs up. Similarly, colleagues and clients who receive hundreds of emails each day will be grateful if you keep it brief.
Thanks to all the readers who got in the game. I’m guilty of using quite a few of these:
Out of the box thinking. There’s no solution, but it will be fun to watch you kill yourself looking for one. (Jennifer Howald)
It’s all good. I’m sorry, but it’s your problem. (Jennie Livingston)
Just sayin’. Just weaseling out of confrontation. (Amy Cassedy Lewis)
Politically correct. Insert eye-roll here. (Jeremy Epstein)
The people (you know it was a committee) who dreamed up “morale booster” probably had their employees’ best interests at heart. Yet it’s come to connote “too little, too late,” “PR opportunity for management,” and a whole lot of other negatives.
Other good terms gone bad include:
Creating synergy. One of a “grab-bag of phrases that fill in for actual ideas, goals or know-how,” says reader Alba Brunetti.
Work with me. “Lower your rates to fit my wee budget.” (Jenna Schnuer)
Operational excellence. “Layoffs and massive budget-cutting” (Sarah Maxim). Used to be called streamlining or rightsizing.
Teachable moment. “You fucked up.” (Sophia Dembling)
Please add to the list!
There’s something offensive about the idea of “eating Chinese” or “eating Indian.” We’re talking about food here, right? Let’s use that extra word to clarify what we’re eating.
Similarly, referring to groups of people as “the blind,” “the deaf” or “the disabled” literally defines them by their limitations. Assuming their disabilities are relevant to the conversation, it’s just as easy to say “blind children” or “people with disabilities.” This is known as people-first language; it emphasizes the person instead of the disability. Seems like common sense to me.
I’ve started collecting these. Would love to hear yours.
- Expert. Someone from out of town.
- Guru (also rockstar, ninja, wizard). Advisor with no real credentials.
- Convergence. We posted the article on Facebook and linked the Facebook page to Twitter.
- Crowdsourced. Vetted by our friends, and maybe the people we ride the train with.
- Human business. Two-year-olds do this on the potty.
I’ve written my share of mission statements. I’ve lauded the “commitment to diversity” at companies where less than ten percent of the managers were diverse (one had a gay, Puerto Rican, female director and counted her three times), and talked up “ongoing initiatives” with no budget, staffing or deliverables. With this in mind, here are my nominees for the emptiest, most irritating phrases in current use.
- Creating an environment of…. Visions of terraria and zoo enclosures come to mind.
- Corporate values/goals. These terms are interchangeable and cancel each other out. For instance, “Our corporate values of inclusion and mutual respect will achieve our corporate goal of $50 million in profits this year—or you’re all fired.”
- The next level. We are afraid to put a number on this because we think it’s going to fail.
- Leverage our strengths. What’s wrong with, “Do more with what we’ve got?”
- Bring it back full circle. Start over without admitting we screwed up.
I admit it—I use too many em dashes. I just—I don’t know—all right, I love them. It’s as if—in some indefinable way—they express the ebb and flow of my thoughts. Which—for some reason—I need to share with you.
Should I curb my enthusiasm for the em dash? Sometimes I’m just being lazy; where colons, semicolons or commas are appropriate, they should be used instead. When I’m blithering (as above) or repeating myself, they should be slashed without mercy.
But occasionally—where emphasis is needed—I think they have a place in business writing. Do you?
My thoughts on hyphens prompted an outpouring of reader complaints about another ubiquitous punctuation mark: the exclamation point.
Back in my advertising days, I had a creative director who used to say (with a fruity, self-satisfied chuckle), “Using an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” Like much of his work, this statement was unoriginal; numerous sources attribute it to F. Scott Fitzgerald. But it’s true that there’s something self-serving about the bang character. Derived from the Latin (“note of admiration”), it was originally used to express joy or wonderment. From here it was a quick leap to astonishment in the negative sense— “That’s the biggest carbuncle I’ve ever seen!”—sarcasm, and warning.
The current trend toward overusage might have started with Tom Wolfe, who (if Trivial Pursuit is to be believed) employed 2,343 of them in his blockbuster Bonfire of the Vanities. It’s gotten a huge boost from email and text messaging, where multiple bangs are routinely used to turn up the volume. What do you think—it it too much? How can we stem the tide?
Once sprinkled sparingly, like saffron, on the risotto of business language, hyphens are now thrown around like handfuls of coarse salt. The major style guides agree that they should link two or more words that serve as adjectives modifying the same noun—but only if the context is unclear. Yet we continue to hyphenate “real-estate agent,” “foreign-exchange rate” and $14-billion-dollar sale” against all logic and reason.
It’s time to stop the madness. Here’s where I think hyphen use is appropriate:
- To avoid double letters: semi-interested, pre-existing
- At the end of a word to avoid repetition: “First- and second- place trophies were awarded at rinkside.”
- To break words at the end of a line
- In cases where they are (really) essential for clarity: “The line re-formed across the street.”
Can we delete them otherwise? What do you think?
Every organization now has a social media policy, and most of them boil down to the same thing: Don’t be an idiot. For some reason, companies feel compelled to spell out every form that idiocy might take. IBM’s guidelines include items like “don’t pick fights” and “don’t pretend to be someone else;” Kodak suggests you “know what you are talking about.” Coca Cola goes even further, specifying that “it’s not okay to violate other people’s rights.”
It’s as if, instead of saying the dress code is business casual, companies are telling their employees to wear pants. Does the nature of social media somehow lead to corporate overthinking?