Say It, Don’t Spray It

“This memo provides the operational considerations for . . . ” Why is technical writing — or, for that matter, most business writing — so turgid? What does this sentence even mean?

Why do people use fancy words when plain ones would do the job? Perhaps it goes back to the days when we were in English class and had to submit a “5 page paper.” More effort went into fluffing up 4 pages into 5 than into writing the darn thing in the first place. When Microsoft Word came out with “one-point-two spacing” the news spread like wildfire around campuses — this was before Twitter and even e-mail. Even worse than using overly fancy words, though, is using fancy words that actually convey the wrong meaning. Our language has many subtleties, and using words as exact synonyms just because they have more syllables weakens the language over time.

Here are my top five pet peeves. Each of them falls into a different category, but all are irritating!

  1. “Utilize” means to use something for a purpose other than what its maker intended. For example, “We utilized the teapot as a gas-can.” But you hear people say “utilize” for “use” … why? Because you get two more syllables of airtime.
  2. I Am A Job Title. In German, all nouns are capitalized. In English, they’re not. Nuff said? I’m proud to be a marketing communications manager. Will I get a raise if I’m a Marketing Communications Manager?
  3. A “dialogue” is actually a formal, structured conversation, and has its roots in literary traditions. If you’re talking to your boss or your kids about something, it’s a talk or a conversation. And while we’re on the subject, I know “dialogue” can be used as a verb, but it turns me off.
  4. “Execute.” I like to get things done, but prefer not to think “Off with her head!” while I’m doing them!
  5. “Impact” is another noun that gets used as a verb, possibly because folks think it will have greater impact than the correct word, “affect.” “Impact” used as a verb means to actually hit something, as in “The rocket impacted Mars.”

#5 is a phenomenon that could be characterized as “verb drift” . . . where nouns tend to become verbs over time. If you like this concept, Facebook me or Fedex me!

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