Look! Up in the sky! It’s bird shit… It’s acid rain… It’s another garbage article about Words You Shouldn’t Use™!
Ok, so this one’s from way back in 2013. Excuses? Maybe. But it was linked to by an article from 2019, so maybe it’s still relevant? I don’t know. Thick as thieves, these bad linguistics posts, I guess.
The article is called “9 Words You’re Literally Beating to Death” and so you already know it’s going to be the worst. It’s by
renowned linguist esteemed language scholar revered language expert some dude named Rob Ashgar. Let’s have a little look see at Rob’s linguistic brain farts, shall we? (Scroll down for why all this is important)
Right off the bat, we’re deep in La La Land:
A few people can shift from a chatty and casual tone to a formal and professional one. But most of us can’t. We import our worst habits from everyday chattage to a formal job interview, a sales presentation or a eulogy.
“A few people”? What, like 3? Maybe four or five? You got any evidence to back this up, Robbo? Remember there are over 500 million L1 English speakers. If only a few of them can shift from a chatty and casual tone to a formal and professional one, why don’t you tell us their names? Oh right, because you’re making this up.
I’ve covered how to overcome the “uh, like” addiction elsewhere. Today, let’s focus on annoying and overused words that are unnecessary or ineffective.
Must… not… click… link… ARRGGHHH!
We’ll get back to Rob’s other BS article in the future. (Maybe)
[Full disclosure: The author of this piece confesses to being a lingual hypocrite who falls far short of perfection. Nevertheless, he soldiers on in the hope of gradual progress and nags others along the way.]
Full disclosure: The author of this piece does not confess to not knowing what the hell he’s talking about. Nevertheless, he soldiers on in the hope that spewing his lingual vomit across the interwebs will make him an influencer.
Literally. It’s becoming hard to imagine this word being used correctly, because it’s often placed next to words that are being used figuratively. You did not literally blow a gasket. You figuratively blew a gasket. The reason that you used literally is that you were grasping for a qualifier or intensifier, but you grabbed the wrong one.
It’s becoming hard to imagine this article getting anything correct about language, because so far none if it has been right. Ok, let me help. The reason that you used literally was because literally means “figuratively” and you know it means that and you know that the person you are speaking with knows that and you were grasping for a word that means “this definitely didn’t happen” and you grabbed the right one. Don’t believe me? Let Neil Gaiman run it down for you.
Basically. Try using basically in a sentence. Now delete basically. What changed? Basically nothing. So give it a rest, and you’ll save three syllables, or four, depending on your pronunciation. Over the course of a lifetime, that can add up to several hundred thousand syllables, which will leave more for the next generation. Since the planet will be a burned-out husk by the time we’re done with it, it’s the least we can do for them.
Hey-o! Climate disaster humor! Rob, you dog, we didn’t know you were funny too. Let me see if I can help you with this one though. The word basically is a discourse marker. People use basically to indicate that what they are about do next is explain a complex subject in simple terms. Starting a sentence with basically is like saying to another person “Don’t talk because I’m not done speaking and you need to pay attention to what I’m about to say because it will contain important information that you need to understand. AND I’m going to save a whole buncha syllables by doing this!” That’s pretty ballin’ for a word of only three or four syllables (depending on your pronunciation). Let me give you an example: Basically, Pragmatics and Sociolinguistics are two fields that study these kinds of things in language. And guess what? They have found that discourse markers carry meaning. So if you remove them, you also remove the meaning that they carry.
Very. How useful is this oh-so-common word in everyday usage? Not very. Skip it altogether or find a more vivid alternative.
If it’s so common, then why isn’t it useful? It is very dumb to judge a word by how common it is. But that’s not what’s going on here really. Robert doesn’t like the word very so he uses the excuse that it is common to denigrate it. He’s fine with the “vivid alternatives” – because they’re not as common I guess. But if he really doesn’t think common words are useful, then he should stop using the, a, I, you, me, and it. Go find some vivid alternatives to those, ya dingus.
Totally. This intensifier seems helpful enough, but it’s now so overused that it’s often associated as a verbal crutch for vacuous mall rats.
Mall rats? In 2013? How old are you, Rob?
Interesting. “How was Melinda’s one-woman show?”
“It was … interesting.”
Melinda’s performance may have been a lot of things – laughably bad, embarrassing, or so on. But in this context it probably wasn’t the dictionary definition of interesting. Too often, we lazily use the word in vague and guarded comments. But it’s usually a weak substitute for what we’d want to say if we only put a little thought and effort into it.
When I ask someone about something and he or she describes it as “well, interesting,” I usually follow up by saying, “Interesting says so much, yet so little. So start spilling the details.”
Ever notice how the people want to tell you how to speak sound like they are hell to have a conversation with? “Start spilling the details.” Ugh. Get lost.
Good. C’mon, you’ve been using this language for years now. Show off your experience with a little demonstration of variety. Everything can’t be good. Hit the thesaurus, and let a few things be super-eminent or bully or at least up to snuff.
I can’t even with this anymore. They’re good words, Rab.
Actually. Actually, while this one is spectacularly overused, I like it and I can’t imagine living without it. So I’m exercising “writer’s prerogative” and giving it a “get out of jail free” card.
Lord have mercy! Let us praise Officer Robert for not putting ALL of these words in jail.
Really. This one’s a debatable misdemeanor. It’s used too reflexively, but it’s innocuous enough.
Still with the crime metaphors, huh?
Kind of. Kind of and sort of aresuperfluous terms. Take them out of a sentence and you’ve improved it in almost every case. While some terms, such as very and totally, are intensifiers, kind of is the opposite—it’s a wishy-washy, weasel term that inspires little confidence.
“Did you pay your taxes?”
“Did you in fact earn a doctorate from Oxford?”
What? Who talks like this? “Did you pay your taxes?” o_O
Wait… you don’t think Robby is just making this stuff up as he goes along, do you? Surely he’s done some research into where and when and how the phrases kind of and sort of occur, hasn’t he?
Consider, finally, that these overworked and underperforming words aren’t the only problem. A closely related problem is the weak energy that we bring to our communications,
Mark Twain (who received an honorary degree in 1907 from Oxford, which ironically means he kind of earned a doctorate from Oxford) noted, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
This Mark Twain quote (and this time it’s a real one) comes from 1890. It’s too bad no one has said or done anything about language after that, isn’t it, Rob? Wouldn’t it be nice if our advice about language could come from, like, sometime in the last 100 years? Oh well.
By the way, you might want to read the full passage of that Mark Twain quote. It’s from a short answer he gave about his writing method. In it, he describes how his method is completely unconscious and he says “I think it unlikely that deliberate and consciously methodical training is usual with the craft [of writing].” That kind of negates the whole point of Rob’s article here. Oops.
Why does this matter?
I’m glad you asked.
Women, especially young women, and people of color are at the vanguard of language change. They often command more styles (or varieties) of language than white men. (At least in English).
But women and POC are at the same time discriminated against for the way they use language. They are, for example, discriminated in job interviews and in the workplace, especially for the ways they speak.
Rob’s article here was published in Forbes. It is specifically for the people who hold power in the workplace, the people who can discriminate in interviews and on the job. Rather than understand the ways that other groups of people use language (and learn what these uses mean), Rob is requiring that people change the way they speak and write in order to accommodate him. I don’t care if Rob didn’t mean to be discriminatory or if he had good intentions with his article. You know what they say about the road to hell… They say shut up and listen to women and people of color.
Rob is not asking people to accommodate him – he is telling them to. And he is using metaphors like DEATH and CRIME to describe the ways that other people speak and language that he doesn’t like.
This is what linguistic discrimination looks like. They deride a word or phrase or way of speaking (without facts or research to back them up), and tell people to judge others when they use these forms of language. Rob is not alone in doing this. It is happening all around us and it needs to stop.
So the next time you see this shit, throw it in the fucking sea.