Anne Connolly, a researcher for the State University of New York system, talked with me about words we have grown tired of hearing, especially since they mean almost nothing. (In fact, they take away impact, because they are annoying.) Initially, we mentioned "basically." If the topic is so basic, do we need to talk about it? Quickly, we added "actually," a qualifier that seems to suggest that "You may not believe me, but this really is the truth."
Turning to sports, we agreed to eliminate "focus." Don't we expect a team to do that, rather than think about last night's TV movie? Likewise, do players have to "put on their game face"? Only a true mariner welcomes the announcement that we are watching "a whale of a game." When a golfer misses a putt, does the announcer have to tell us "at least he gave it a chance"? We wonder, "Why wouldn't he?" By now, we get no charge from hearing that a player "electrified the crowd." Heard that too many times, "actually."
After our conversation, I thought of other words I'd like to hold last rites for. There's "if you will." What if the person responds, "No, I won't"? By now, aren't we all weary of reporters mentioning that a certain event will bring "closure"? And why do people say "at this point in time"? Somehow, I thought the simple, short word "now" was good enough.
Another pet peeve: "in her own right," such as saying that the daughter of a celebrity has become famous herself. Wouldn't we know that without being told, when she wins an Oscar?
I dislike hearing that a criminal is still "at large." When the police arrest him, I'm not sure he would be "at small." Similarly, when a news event happens "in broad daylight," I know I have never heard the contrasting "in narrow daylight."
To gather opinions about our most despised words, I invited readers of my monthly E-mail newsletter to submit their lists. One reader mentioned her strong dislike for "at the end of the day." I responded that "when all is said and done" bothers me, and she replied: "That's on the same level-it's awful."
Donna Hunt, a faculty member at Middle Georgia College, dislikes "irregardless" (Who needs the ir prefix?), "whatever," and "like." "I teach public speaking," she wrote, "and if I charged a penny for each 'like' I would be a rich woman."
Monica Ricci, who heads Catalyst Organizing in Atlanta, included other taboo words/phrases: "without further ado" (what is ado, anyway?), "as a matter of fact" (a longwinded way for saying "actually"), "supposably" and "orientated."
Barbara Lutes, an official with the Department of Family and Children 's Services, votes against "most definitely." "As opposed to what," she wonders-"almost definitely" or "not quite definitely"?
Another reader wants those who say, "He did that unconsciously" to know they should have said "subconsciously." He referred to this misusage: "very unique," because "unique cannot be qualified. It is either unique or it isn't."
Now, having realized that we are surrounded by stale, uncreative language that annoys people, what steps should we take to improve our daily conversations-both personal and professional? Consider these:
- Make a list of the words that bother you.
- Identify words and phrases on this list that you say frequently.
- Beside each item, write substitute words that will get the meaning across in a fresh way.
- When listening to a person who employs words you dislike, exercise patience. Silently translate for them, so you move past the distraction to determine the intended message-in language you prefer.
- Remain on the lookout for words whose life span has shortened. When you are weary of popular terminology, you can "take it to the bank" that other people share your saturation level. Add these forbidden words to your list, and find workable replacements.
Try these suggestions. You'll become "a breath of fresh air" when you "bend somebody's ear."