How to Clean Up Your Word Choices and Sound Smarter

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As anyone who has edited my work can attest, I’m by all measures a sloppy writer. I follow Hemingway’s axiom of “write drunk, edit sober,” but I always seem to miss the edit part. It is an act of true kindness that my editors patiently clean up my messes. There may be a typo here or there, but for the most part, they do a far better job than I do. I would like to think this qualifies me to speak on the topic of the butchery of the English language, both in print and conversation.

When people tell me that I have misused a homophone (there, their, they’re) I like to tell them that the English language is a dynamic exercise in linguistics; ever-changing and evolving to meet the needs of each generation. The truth of the matter is that in many cases I lazily use the talk-to-text feature on my phone and it often screws up homophones.

(I will worry about the robot uprising when Siri can accurately dial a phone number. I leave far too many voicemails where I scream “Cancel! Cancel! Cancel!” like some deranged politician who accidentally launched the nukes.)

To be sure, social networking has made us lazier about our writing, but for me, the most abhorrent assault on the English language isn’t in a tweet or post. It’s permeating the halls and conference rooms of corporate America. With this in mind, I am fighting back against word molesters and calling them out when they promulgate ignorance and yes, dare I say it, stupidity.

Don’t make up words.

I am not by nature a violent man — yes I will protect myself if attacked, but I have tried (mostly successfully) to put my bar brawling days behind me. Should I actually commit murder, it will likely be because someone is using gibberish words. 

I used to work for a dim bulb who routinely used the term “irregardless,” which is technically a word but not a correct one. It was bad enough having to work for this dullard, but to have him use “irregardless” in a vain attempt to make himself seem smart and professional only made it worse.

“Did you mean ‘irrespective’ or ‘regardless?’” I once asked him. “Those are both perfectly serviceable and grammatically correct words. ‘Irregardless,’ on the other hand, isn’t, and I find it difficult to respect or take direction from someone who uses this word so often it sounds like a tic.”

Irrespective of my correction he modified his language not one whit. I felt like Annie Sullivan trying to teach a baboon to speak Latin.

Related: 9 Phrases Smart People Never Use In Conversation

Stop turning nouns into verbs and vice versa.

In the last ten years, I have suffered through myriad grammatical nightmares, but the latest one that actually causes me physical pain is “ask” as a noun. When people say, “my ask of you is…” or “what is your ask?” I just want to tell them to kiss my ask.

I will go as far as to say, “I don’t have an ask, I have a request. Would you like to hear it or do you need me to make up some words you can use instead?” I am not always very popular around the water cooler.

Another victim of word murder is “hip” as a verb. A (I can only hope up ex) DJ in Detroit would work, “I’m going to hip you to [fill in the rest]” into every blithering utterance he made. It was the verbal equivalent of the man bun.

(Don’t get too smug about man buns, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. Many of you are still wearing the mullet despite the ravages of male pattern baldness. You’re looking more and more like Ben Franklin, who, let’s face it wasn’t just party in the back — he was party front and back.)

Related: The SEAL Teams Don’t Accept These 10 Phrases, and Neither Should You

Don’t make up suffixes.

Just because you are too inarticulate or too lazy to choose the right word does not give you license to debase a word by arbitrarily adding “ize” “ify” or “ification” to a perfectly serviceable word.

The worst offender in my book is “gamification.” Gamification refers to making training into a game designed to teach. Do we really need the word “gamification?” It is the stupidification of a word and a concept. It’s not like there wasn’t already a term in training for this activity — it has long been called simulation or experiential learning.

Related: You’ll Never Hear Successful People Say These 15 Phrases

Outlaw complexity for complexity’s sake.

I have never met anyone who read something and said, “I hate this because it’s too clear and easy to understand.”

Too many people try to sound like a lawyer when they write. If you are a lawyer, good for you, your education is paying off. If you aren’t a lawyer, knock it off. When something is written too complicated (like most textbooks, and if someone out there reading this writes text books, shame on you) people lose interest. It just takes too much darned brain power to keep rereading the same paragraph and getting nothing out of it. Keep it simple; people will thank you for it. 

Phil La Duke

Phil La Duke

Phil LaDuke is is a Safety Transformation Architect at Environmental Resources Management. An author, he writes about business, worker safety and organizational change topics on his blog. An avid user of social media for business…

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