Shun 'Vanilla' Words in Quest of More
Expressive Writing

by Marti Smiley Childs and Jeff March

Americans crave colorful variety and distinction in just about everything -- in their wines, blue jeans, athletic shoes, cell phone ring tones and blended gourmet coffees. They're discriminating in just about all of their pursuits except something truly important: language. While expecting 30 or more flavors of ice cream, sorbet and non-fat frozen yogurt at the local confectionery shop, many Americans are distressingly content with banal vanilla speech and writing.

In reply to the question "How is your creme de menthe cappuccino?" the reply is, "Great."

An employee's annual performance review says, "You did a great job in launching the new product line."

Great? Meaning "extremely large in size"? Or "large in quantity or number"? Or "extensive in time or distance"? True, one sense of the adjective "great" indicates "remarkable or outstanding" achievement. But with so many more vividly descriptive and precise terms at our disposal, why settle for "great"? How about describing the employee's performance as "superior," "praiseworthy," "admirable," "commendable," "exemplary," "peerless," "fastidious," "meticulous" or "punctilious"?

Pallid speech is attributable in part to our tendency to assimilate the workplace jargon and sloppy syntax to which we're regularly exposed. It's also a manifestation of laziness or haste.

Casually overused and misused terminology abounds. A transit official declared, "Use of alternative routes would significantly impact bus ridership." The verb "impact" properly means "to pack firmly together" or "to strike forcefully." But it is often incorrectly used to mean "exert an effect upon." Typically that sense of the word carries the connotation of crowding, as in traffic congestion. However, the transit official was trying to say just the opposite -- that changing the bus route would diminish ridership. Thus, "diminish" would have been a far more precise word choice than "impact."

How about a double scoop of vanilla served by bureaucrats claiming that a proposed city park would "negatively impact" a nearby wildlife waterway? Do they mean that the creek would overflow? Be vandalized? Polluted by rubbish or fertilizer runoff? Defoliated? Or simply that wildlife would be disturbed? If so, they should more definitively say, "The park would threaten the seclusion of the wildlife refuge."

The park proponents might offer a counter-proposal that they say "addresses the concerns" of wildlife preservationists. That's hardly compelling because in no sense does the verb form of "address" suggest anything committal. "Address" is a weak term that in this sense means "to direct efforts toward a task." Instead, a sincere, responsive approach would "resolve," "surmount," "amend" or "rectify" objectionable aspects of the park proposal.

A scientific paper stated, "Our results show some consistent trends that address our original hypothesis." How so? Did the findings support the hypothesis? Corroborate it? Substantiate it? Confirm it? Or contradict it?

A supervisor may denounce a prank by an employee as "inappropriate behavior." The adjective "inappropriate," which means, "not suitable," is so limp that it's scarcely a condemnation. Truly objectionable behavior demands a stronger indictment than that. Was the behavior offensive to some employees? Did it physically endanger them? Did the employee abuse or damage company property? Or was the act an embarrassment for the supervisor or the company?

Challenge yourself to find the proper terms to precisely express each thought. Keep a thesaurus and a dictionary within reach. Expand your vocabulary by verifying the definitions of even familiar words, by studying the distinctions between similar terms, and by using them to more clearly express yourself.

As you do, treat yourself occasionally to a frothy creme de menthe cappuccino, with a scoop of ambrosial pineapple-raspberry sorbet on the side.

EditPros / writing, editing & employee training
Marti Childs Jeff March
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(530) 759-2000;  fax (530) 759-2051

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