Based on a little Twitter rant of mine…
and the fact that I felt like I’ve seen this article online before, I decided to go looking for around for advice about which Words You Should Not Use Ever™. It turns out, the Time article I was ranting about was actually written by someone at Muse. My social media slaying of that article unfortunately didn’t keep Time from tweeting it out again less than a month later. I know, I was as shocked as you:
Some things never die.
That Muse article which appeared on Time has also appeared on the websites of Forbes, USA Today, Federalist Papers, Business Insider, and Mashable. Talk about mileage. I was able to find 12 other articles slinging the same snake oil. I don’t have the time or space to go over all of the words on each of the listicles. Let’s just go over the ones that appear on three or more lists instead. They are: actually, but, honestly, just, literally, maybe, never, really, should and very. You can see a spreadsheet of the entire word lists here (I am not including one list which turned up in my search because it’s actually honest advice on how to be a better person, rather than a language shaming trash piece like the other listicles). Here we go!
Appears on 3 lists: Inc.com, Diana Urban and Dictionary.com
Dictionary.com calls their banned words “crutch words”, invoking the idea that a sentence isn’t strong enough to stand on its own without them. But then removing them would mean… I don’t understand the metaphor. They say about crutch words that “crutch words slip into sentences in order to give the speaker more time to think or to emphasize a statement. Over time, they become unconscious verbal tics. Most often, crutch words do not add meaning to a statement.” What is curious about this is that they list a meaning for each of the crutch words that they list. Maybe these are just the meanings that they don’t like? Besides, emphasizing a statement is a perfectly fine and natural thing for some words to do. Not every word has to bring some definition of content along with it. If it did, we wouldn’t be able to use words like if and not.
For actually, Dictionary.com says “Actually is the perfect example of a crutch word. It is meant to signify something that exists in reality, but it is more often used as a way to add punch to a statement (as in, “I actually have no idea”).” Ok, so what’s wrong here? We’re not allowed to add punch to our statements? Why not? And wouldn’t that make our language blander? I don’t think the bloggers at Dictionary.com have thought this one through. (The lexicographers over there are off the hook, though. They know what’s up and they have nothing to do with this clickbait nonsense.)
Inc.com’s problem with actually is that it will put distance between sales people and their customers, especially in phrases like Actually, you can do this under “Settings.” The idea is that the actually implies the customer was wrong and that’s a no-no in bidness. So it should be replaced by something like sure thing. So their problem isn’t with the word actually, it’s with the sentence adverb actually. But Inc.com hasn’t picked up on the fact that actually might have more than one meaning and more than one use in a sentence, so they’ve banned it from all sentences everywhere. Somebody should put them in touch with Dictionary.com.
Diana Urban says only that actually doesn’t “add information” and that it should be removed if the sentence makes sense without it. Ok, let’s pretend that actually doesn’t add information to a sentence (even though it totally does). Why stop with removing actually? Articles (the and a) don’t add information to a sentence and many languages do not have articles. So should we remove them? No, because there are other things that words besides pass along pieces of lexical information. Words can allow speakers to relate their feelings about the information. Like, I actually want to punch my screen when I read these banned words lists.
3 lists: SelfGrowth.com, Inc.com, Forbes 10; Also appears on the Forbes 7 as “I’m no expert, but”
Inc.com says this about but:
As for “but,” look at the difference removing it makes, she* points out.
I really appreciate you writing in, but unfortunately we don’t have this feature available.
I really appreciate you writing in! Unfortunately, we don’t have this feature available.
It’s a subtle fix that makes your message more positive.
* The advice on actually and but in the Inc.com article actually comes from this post by Carolyn Kopprasch.
Hold the phone. You didn’t just remove the word but, you changed it to an apostrophe. Am I supposed to always do this? [Song lyrics, poems]
Over on Selfgrowth.com, it’s all about removing obstacles to achieve your dream:
When used as a conjunction, “but” negates whatever statement that precedes it. “I want to study law, but it will take a lot of hard work.” Your mind does not focus on your desire to become a lawyer or judge; it only sees the hard work you will need to perform. Replace “but” with “and.”
You know what? I’m going to get behind this one. Do that hard work and become a lawyer. You got this! (The Forbes 10 list says pretty much the same thing as this)
Now, back to the grind! The Forbes 7 list says this:
Women often preface their ideas with qualifiers such as, “I’m not sure what you think, but…”
Did you think we were going to get out of this without criticizing women? Ha! Such wishful thinking…
4 lists: Muse 15, Forbes 6, Business Insider, Dictionary.com
Dictionary.com says that this word “is used to assert authority or express incredulity, as in, ‘Honestly, I have no idea why he said that.’” However, it very rarely adds honesty to a statement.” What is the problem here? Why can’t we use a word to assert authority or express incredulity? Honestly, Dictionary.com, don’t you know how language works? You’re a goddamn dictionary, fer crissakes!
Muse, the list that started this whole ball rolling, says that “the minute you tell your audience this particular statement is honest, you’ve implied the rest of your words were not”. What? No. That’s not how things work. I used honestly in the last paragraph. Does that mean that all of the other words in this post are dishonest? What kind of black magic linguistics is this? Honestly is one powerful word if it can make the rest of the words sound dishonest. Maybe you shouldn’t use honestly until you’ve received a license and the proper training.
The Forbes 6 list and the Business Insider info-tainment video both parrot the Muse advice. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I don’t really care. Moving on!
6 lists: Muse 15, Forbes 6, Inc.com, Diana Urban, Forbes 7, Dictionary.com
Six lists! This word is on six lists! Way to go, just!
The Forbes 6 list goes hard on just:
Just. This seemingly simple word is often used but rarely needed. It also packs a big punch to detract from your credibility and confidence and negates from the importance of your message. Instead of sending an email that begins with “Just wanted to check in…” say “I’m checking in on X, Y and Z.” The adjustment is small, but there is a big difference in the resulting impression you leave.
How often is “often”? Don’t ask because Forbes don’t know. They just know it’s too often. But apparently using this little tiny word can make you seem less credible (for… reasons?), less confident (because… Cobra Kai, show no weakness!), and less important. That’s a tall order for a four-letter adverb.
Dictionary.com also claims that just is too common and (oddly) that overusing just makes paying attention more “effortful” for listeners. I don’t know how they come to that conclusion. They say that just is used “to signify a simple action”, so to me it would seem useful. If I introduce what I’m saying with just, it means that what I’m saying is simple. If I don’t, then you should pay more attention. If you ask me, this use of just makes language better.
Inc.com gets its knickers in a bunch over just. They say:
No matter the context, this one smacks of negativity. Consider phrases you might hear and how someone might interpret them.
“Just a minute.” Your priorities are somewhere other than helping me.
“Just do XYZ.” You think I’m having a hard time figuring this out.
“I’m just an intern.” You think your power or influence is limited, in which case it certainly is.
Blogger, speaker, and consultant Matt Monge takes special issue with the latter example. “You’re not just your position. You’re an integral part of your organization,” he writes. “You’re an individual with goals, dreams, abilities, and ideas. You can be a motivated, empowered, positive, valuable member of the team if you just decide to put forth the effort and work it takes to be those things. (bolding mine)
Again we have Inc.com outsourcing their culpability here. I notice that Mr. Monge’s qualifications do not include linguist or editor. Interesting. Is that why he uses the word just while telling people not to use the word just?! Huh, IS IT? Sometimes I wish these people would reread the brain farts that they smear across their Word docs. What are the chances that I’m going to find Matt Monge using the word just in his blog, his speech and his consultations? I’ll tell you: about 100 million percent certain.
Diana Urban goes easy on just, which is good because she uses just after her section advising people not to use just. Confused yet?
The Forbes 7 list warns that saying “Sorry, I just wanted to check in” is code for “Sorry for taking up your time”. Yep, that’s exactly what it is. Nothing wrong with that. It’s called pragmatics. You should learn about it, Forbes, before prognosticating on it. The Forbes 7 list also says that removing all of the justs from your emails and texts will make your statements sound “much stronger and straightforward”. In other words, you will sound like an asshole who has no concept of subtlety. Congratulations, you are become David Brent.
3 lists: Muse 15, Diana Urban, Dictionary.com
The Muse 15 list gives us the old “literally means actually, it can’t mean figuratively” mumbo jumbo. They even come right out and say that people usually mean figuratively when they write literally, thereby contradicting their own argument because if someone uses a word and you know what that word means THEN IT’S NOT THE WRONG WORD.
From Dictionary.com (WHO SHOULD KNOW BETTER!):
This adverb should be used to describe an action that occurs in a strict sense. Often, however, it is used inversely to emphasize a hyperbolic or figurative statement: “I literally ran 300 miles today.” Literally is one of the most famously used crutch words in English
The phrase I literally ran 300 miles today looks weird to me. Would anyone actually say that, i.e. use the figurative literally with an exact numeral after it? I think the people at Dictionary.com just made that sentence up and it shows they don’t know how to use the figurative literally. I mean, why didn’t they just check THEIR OWN GODDAMN DICTIONARY (their files, as it were)?
There are only 20 hits for “PRONOUN literally ran” in the 450-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English. None of them include the figurative use of literally; they are all literal literally. So, no, Dictionary.com doesn’t know what it’s talking about. (Side note: I wonder what the ratio of figurative literally to literal literally is in the BYU corpora. Would be fun to check out.)
Diana Urban says that literally doesn’t add information to a sentence, once again completely missing the point of the pragmatic uses of hyperbolic literally.
3 lists: Muse 15, SelfGrowth.com, Business Insider
Muse 15 thinks that maybe makes you sound “uninformed” and “unsure”. Business Insider says the exact same thing. But isn’t that the whole goddamned point? They say that you should write an informed piece, but sometimes that just ain’t possible. Maybe our universe is a tiny speck inside another universe. Maybe there are 9 dimensions. Maybe the people who write these lists didn’t do their research.
Selfgrowth.com takes the personal development angle and says that maybe should be replaced with I will or I will not because these words are more positive and they will lead to you emitting feelings of confidence and resolve. That’s a definite maybe.
5 lists: Muse 15, SelfGrowth.com, Inc.com, Forbes 10, Business Insider
All of the lists argue that never (and by extension always) are discouraging because they do not allow for possibilities. The Muse 15 list has this to say about never (and always):
Absolutes lock the writer into a position, sound conceited and close-minded, and often open the door to criticism regarding inaccuracies. Always is rarely true. Unless you’re giving written commands or instruction, find another word.
I’m sorry to tell you, but never using never is not going to save you from criticism regarding inaccuracies (hint, hint: your language thinkpieces are inaccurate and they suck). Just like how you are sometimes unsure of something (maybe), sometimes you’re totes sure of it. Don’t be afraid to use always and never. Remember: Goonies never say die.
6 lists: Muse 15, The Balance, Forbes 10, Business Insider, Diana Urban, Dictionary.com
We have a winner, folks! Really tops the charts by appearing on six lists! Really well done, really. Hats off.
We also see the Balance’s list for the first time in this article. Don’t get your hopes up, though. Their advice sucks as much as the rest of the lists:
In a business sense, the word “really” is a very casual expression that attempts to place extra emphasis and importance on a particular outcome, without really quantifying what exactly that extra emphasis is.
That advice is making go cross eyed. Since when do we have to quantify emphasis? And what does that even mean – do you want, like, numbers? Should I use weights – three pounds of emphasis? Or length – a 39-and-a-half-foot emphasis.
Forbes 10 (quoting someone else) says that really is a “poor attempt to instill candor and truthfulness that makes clients and coworkers question whether you’re really telling the truth.” Get the hell out. Just go. This makes it sound like there’s some conspiracy of people judging others who say the word really. Or that your coworkers are incapable of questioning people who use the word really around them. It’s nonsense. I think the people who made these lists are the only ones judging your usage of really and it’s good to remember that they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Business Insider, Diana Urban and Dictionary.com all promote the idea that really is useless. Dictionary.com’s advice on really: It’s not that bad, but you still shouldn’t use it anyway. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Really and very are bittersweet adverbs in English; on the one hand, they provide a lexical boost to the description at hand—“That was a really entertaining show,” “The talk was very interesting.” Using these adverbs helps the listener understand that the show or talk provided more-than-average engagement for the speaker.
The problem is that, like fantastic and great, really and very are terms that chain speakers to unremarkable language. To eliminate the really/very crutch and enliven your speech, select one punchy or creative adjective instead: breathtaking, provocative, knee-smacking, charitable.
I don’t understand this advice. Surely not every show can be breathtaking or provocative or whatever punchy adjective. Some shows are just really interesting, right? So why can’t we describe them that way? Why do I have to do so much work coming up with some rare adjective? Will it make my language more remarkable or will it be more work for my listener/reader to follow along? There’s a reason that really and interesting are so common – they do what’s needed and no one is asking for more. We save the words like knee-smacking for things that are actually knee-smacking (just kidding, no one use knee-smacking unironically).
3 lists: SelfGrowth.com, The Balance, Inc.com
I have to admit, I had no idea why this word would be on these lists. But check out the downward spiral that will happen to you if you use the word should:
“‘I should be [doing something more]’ leads to ‘Man, I lack discipline’ which leads to ‘What’s wrong with me?’ which leads to ‘Maybe I don’t have what it takes … why do I even bother … I should just quit now …’” says psychologist and master violinist Dr. Noa Kageyama. “And pretty soon we’re sitting on the couch watching reruns of The Office and eating a six-pack of Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches.” (from Inc.com)
Yikes! That’s fucking scary (except for watching reruns of The Office, that show was great). Who knew should is the crystal meth of language? And what the heck is a Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich? Are they like really bad? Are they what… what losers eat? What losers who say the word should eat? *shudder*.
3 lists: Muse 15, Diana Urban, Dictionary.com</span>
Oh my god. This is the part of the Muse 15 article that advised using woebegone instead of very. Here’s the pic, so you know it happened:
So now we’re not allowed to qualify adjectives anymore? Ugh. Listen, I’m going to say this again for the people at the back: Sometimes you don’t need to be specific. Sometimes you’re not ecstatic, you’re just very happy. And the fact that these kinds of articles keep getting churned out doesn’t make me melancholy or depressed – it makes me very sad. Sure, be specific. But don’t be so specific that you sound like a robot.
-zzkkt- She’s 6’3” and it’s 13 degrees below freezing -zzkkt-
Oh yeah, if you were wondering whether Muse practices what they preach, they don’t. Scroll down that article a bit and you’ll be presented with a popup that says “Answer a few (very) short questions…” BUT HOW SHORT ARE THEY? Y U NO be MOAR specific?!
We covered Dictionary.com’s bungling of very in the section on really above. Diana Urban says something about it, but who cares?
We’re done here
If you hate these words or hate people for using these words, just stop it. If you use these words, just keep doing it. If you’re an editor and you see too many of these words in someone’s article, then do what you do and take a few out.
If you are a competent speaker, then you know how these words are used – where they belong, where they don’t, where you need them, what they mean, all that jazz. So don’t take the “advice” from these listicles. Hating on people for their use of language is an old game and its siren song is so strong that people will literally tell you to stop using some of the most common words in the English language. Because they don’t know what they’re talking about and they have nothing better to do.