Don't Let Contrived Words Clutter Your Language
by Marti Smiley Childs and Jeff March

Technology has enabled multitudinous remarkable changes in the way we live, work and communicate. From the perspective of a writer or linguist, however, not all of those changes have been beneficial.

People from all cultures and all industries influence changes in language over time, but the technology sector has been disproportionately responsible for new interpretations of existing words and contrivance of new and often nonsensical terminology. Members of the computer industry in particular concoct new terms apparently with the same fury with which programmers "sling code," mutating the language as readily as they introduce software updates and "bug patches." Welcome to English 12.1.2.

Marketers in some technology firms, for example, are quite comfortable using the concocted term "instantiation," which to them means an occurrence or instance of a condition or situation. They have conjugated a verb form, "instantiate," meaning to create an instance.

An executive at a high-tech corporation announced that he is pleased to be playing a role in "architecting the future" of his organization. The word "architect" is a noun; it has no verb form. Yes, some nouns have identical verb forms; a nurse does nurse, a cook does cook, and a coach does coach. But many other nouns do not have legitimate verb forms. A musician doesn't "musician" music, and a dentist doesn't "dentist" your teeth. Likewise, real structural architects don't "architect" buildings; they design them. And no one else "architects" either.

A corporation published a "personnel pathing guide" offering advice about career development to employees. The word "path" is not a verb. In its personnel manual, the same human resources department advised supervisors that "feedback is most impactful in a safe environment." The word "feedback" is corporate jargon for response or reaction, and the word "impactful"--apparently intended as a synonym for "influential" or "powerful"--does not exist. Even when proper words are substituted, the sentence is nonsensical: response is most influential in a safe environment. What does that mean?

A friend announced she is "transitioning into a new career" rather than "making the transition to a new career." The word "transition" is not a verb.

At a company meeting, an employee declared, "I just visited a mountain retreat that is ideal for an offsite." Use of "offsite" as a noun is nonstandard; it should be used only as a hyphenated compound adjective modifying a noun: "I just visited a mountain retreat that is ideal for an off-site meeting."

Government labeling regulations have prompted vintners to coin a new term, "meritage," to define blended wines. Under federal regulations, a wine cannot be called a merlot, chardonnay or other variety unless at least 75 percent of its content is derived from grapes of the named variety. "Meritage," a blend of the terms "merit" and "heritage," will be used for blended wines of two or more varieties of grapes that cannot qualify for a traditional varietal name.

The dictionary has a name for such new words, usages or expressions: "neologisms." Interestingly, "neologism" is also defined as "a meaningless word coined by a psychotic."

In addition to simply using an existing noun as a verb, indiscriminate word coiners use suffixes such as "-ize" and "-able" to turn nouns, adjectives and adverbs into concocted verbs.

Although now generally accepted by default, the verb "finalize" came into used in the United States as a military term. The "ize" appendage has been used in fabricating numerous ugly words, including "anonymize," with the intended meaning "to make anonymous."

Sometimes adjectives and adverbs, particularly those derived from verbs and ending with "-able" or "-ible" suffixes, are incorrectly used as nouns. Either of those two suffixes can yield any of three meanings: "capable of, fit for, or worthy of."

Consider the word "deliverable," which is an adjective meaning "capable of being delivered." But it is being misappropriated as a noun to indicate deadlines for completion of component stages of an assignment, as in "The environmental analysis requires three deliverables."

In a memo informing customers of service changes, an Internet service provider said "We view this as a positive to our customers." While the word "positive" can be used as a noun under certain specific circumstances (for example, in reference to a photographic image), it is in the example sentence functioning as an adjective--in this case in search of a nonexistent noun.

One questionable new application of a term involving the "-able" suffix was obviously created without first consulting a dictionary. The word "actionable" has a well-established, traditional legal definition: "subject to or affording grounds for an action or suit at law." North Carolina writer Max W. Matthews has noticed, however, that "actionable" is catching on among marketing executives apparently unaware of its established meaning. Marketers, he says, have arbitrarily (and perhaps unknowingly) re-cast its meaning as "something to take action on or with."

The availability of equally persuasive terms to convey intended meaning makes "actionable" an unwise choice of words for any company seeking to describe the virtues of its products or services. Matthews thinks most companies would not willingly "risk suggesting--obliquely or not, inadvertently or not, consciously or not--that their content or activities are in any way illegal or unethical." Outside of the marketing world, he points out, new uses of this term are "at best potentially confusing, and at worst ambiguous or pejorative in their associations." The preferable choice is unambiguous, plain language--a concept that even the legal profession itself has begun to embrace.

Tricky word propagators occasionally pull a noun out of the hat by adding a suffix to a verb. Adding "-ance" to the verb "exceed" creates "exceedance," which some government agencies have used to indicate overextension or violation of acceptable limits, as in "the company was fined for repeated exceedance of permissible particle emission levels." To fix that sentence, simply restore the word to its proper verb form: "... fined for repeatedly exceeding permissible emission levels."

Some contrived terms are little more than compressions of legitimate constructions. Marketers use the term "downline" as an adjective in referring to the people who are subordinate--they are down the line of command. In multi-level marketing, upper-level personnel are paid commissions for sales that "downline" personnel make. Other compressed terms include "on task," meaning "on the assigned task," and two reprehensible euphemisms for layoffs--"downsizing" and "rightsizing."

Creation of compound adjectives by linking a noun with another modifier is perfectly legitimate, as illustrated by "rock-solid," "quick-thinking" and "rough-hewn." So "value-added" is seemingly acceptable. But careful analysis reveals that it's not a well-constructed description for products or services that are somehow enhanced. In the phrase "value-added reseller," the compound modifier appears to be in reverse order. "Added-value" would make more sense, because "added" should modify "value." "Enhanced-value" would be more logical yet.

Some new terms deserve merit, however, if for no other reason than their wit or metaphorical value. One such nominee is "out-of-pocket," a euphemistic term for "away from the desk" or, more to the point, "out of the cubicle."

Try to find some time to get out of pocket, and have an impactful day.

EditPros / writing, editing & employee training
Marti Childs Jeff March
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