<< back to the archive list

August 22nd, 2007

Banned words and phrases

by Barbara Wallraff

Stephen Shivinsky, of Farmington Hills, Mich., writes: “Your recent column on the word ‘utilize’ inspired me to share a list of words and phrases banned from use that I have compiled for my staff. As the corporate communications staff for a national health system, we are writing and editing every day, including senior-management-authored memos or presentations. Inevitably, one or more of the following appear. We take it as an enjoyable responsibility to eradicate these words. I have this list posted outside my door, and a few of our management people with a sense of humor — or perhaps editorial sense — have submitted their own nominees.

Words and Phrases Banned From Use

at the end of the day
white space opportunities
ramp up
going forward basis
tipping point
paradigm shift
perfect storm
low hanging fruit
level playing field
deep dive
juice to squeeze ratio, or ‘Is there enough juice for the squeeze?’
out of the box”

Dear Stephen: Good list — and how heartening it is to know that someone somewhere in the health industry is committed to communicating in a jargon-free way. The phrase at the top of your list, “at the end of the day,” has such a bad reputation by now that I’d advise anyone who starts to say it to bite his or her tongue — unless, of course, the person means it literally, as in “I’m always glad to go home at the end of the day.”

“At the end of the day” was also ranked No. 1 on a list of “Top 10 Clichés” in the U.S. media last year. The list was compiled by the Factiva news-search service. Factiva wasn’t making a value judgment when it gave the phrase that ranking. It was simply reporting that “at the end of the day” turned up in print more often — a lot more often — than any of the other candidates it researched. “Level playing field” and “low hanging fruit” also appear on Factiva’s list as well as yours. One of theirs that is similar to one of yours is “think outside the box”; this one also appeared in a recent Newsweek piece about clichés in student writing. Whether you think of them as jargon or as clichés, these are all good phrases to avoid.

What makes particular words and phrases annoying? It’s not just that we hear them frequently. After all, we hear “Good morning” a lot, and that never turns up on lists of irritating expressions. Words go wrong when expressions that once seemed fresh and clever become commonplace — as in “at the end of the day” or “think outside the box.” Or when they try to make something ordinary sound important and special, such as “ramp up” instead of “increase” or “impact” instead of “affect.” Or when they’re needlessly obscure: “granular”? “delta”?

Naturally, the deepest circle of language hell is reserved for expressions that manage to have all these failings at once. “White space opportunities” would be a perfect example, except that most people have never heard it. It’s commonplace only in some business circles, where it means “new opportunities.” Let’s see ... what’s an everyday example? Can anybody top “not to put too fine a point on it”?

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

<< back to the archive list