Every year Lake Superior State University publishes its “List of Words and Phrases to Be Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.” This year’s list included such phrases as “going green,” “iconic” and “desperate search,” among others.
As Hile Design’s copywriter, it’s my job to keep copy (both in-house and client-related) clean and lean, which means, among other things, keeping it as free as possible of both industry-specific jargon and tired words and phrases.
Here’s my own list of overused or confusing language. While I won’t go so far as to say these words should be banished outright (jargon is useful when people within an industry are communicating with each other, and some words are just too good to discard entirely), I’ve heard them enough on TV and radio, and seen them pop up in unedited client copy and print ads, to make me think twice before using them.
- Solution. I suppose it could be argued that every company is some client’s “solution,” but I’ve become weary of hearing this ubiquitous word. It’s used in every industry from technology to health care. An old adage in writing is, “Show, don’t tell.” So don’t just say, “Kitty-bites: Your finicky cat’s food solution.” Tell me why and how, or paint me a word picture like Meow Mix does: “Tastes so good cats ask for it by name.” Exception: Use it when a word rhymes with it: “Easy-Clean: Your backyard pollution solution.”
- Cutting-edge and out-of-the-box. These come from Hile’s creative director Julie Tibus (thanks, Julie!). The two words mean pretty much the same thing, and using them is supposed to show that the company they describe is really “with it”— with it enough, in fact, to think of using the words cutting edge and out-of-the-box. Except that everyone is now using those words to describe themselves or their particular “solution,” which means that if you do too, you can’t claim the description. Exception: Use the words when talking about pizza: “Ricardo’s Pizza: We’re your cutting-edge, out-of-the box dinner solution.”
- Utilize, over-utilize, under-utilize, utilization. I admit this word (and its many variations) is one of my personal pet peeves, because it takes the perfectly good, solid word use and turns it into what we used to call a 75-cent word (which adjusted for inflation, makes it a ten-dollar word). I’ll grant you that sometimes you need a three-syllable word to make the sentence flow. Companies that use “utilize” in their copy also tend to create complex sentences filled with company jargon about “cutting-edge solutions.” So, use use, if you can. Exception: Use it in a tongue-in-cheek way: “We’re the guys who utilize.” And you might be able to get away with rhyming here, too: “Realize. Prioritize. Utilize. Yep–We Do It All.”
- Global. Most local businesses won’t try to get away with this one, realizing that it would sound ridiculous to say,”Bob’s Corner Market: Your Global Solution for Items You Forgot at the Grocery Store.” But big companies use it in an attempt to sound experienced and far-reaching, which they usually are. The downside to this word is that customers can think you’re too big to care or provide great customer service. Exception: Use it if you’re a company that sells globes: “We’re global. ‘Nuff said.”
- ROI and other acronyms (CEO, COO, CPU). Some companies throw these around to show they are knowledgeable about marketing or whatever industry the acronym falls into. Think fast: Do you know what ROI stands for? I got into writing early but marketing came along later in my career, so I had the disadvantage of sitting in on staff and client meetings while advertising jargon dipped and soared over my head like so many bats on a summer evening. If you have a background in marketing or business, or even if you took a business-related class in college, you know that ROI stands for Return on Investment, and you may think, “But everybody knows what ROI means.” Not everybody does (confession: I didn’t), but even if they did, that fact wouldn’t justify using the word as a tag line or main selling point of a service. So, there are two points here: Avoid jargon, particularly acronyms, and avoid words that don’t lead to a concrete mental image that helps you sell a product or service (see Solution, above). Exception: Use a bunch of acronyms in a single sentence as a way of making fun of yourself or to make a point: “Is your ROI getting held back by your CEO’s lack of creativity or your computer’s slow CPU?”
- Arguably. This word is not specific to advertising, but I’ve been seeing it everywhere lately, and it always makes me pause: “Justin Verlander is arguably one of the best pitchers in the American League.” OK, Are you saying that you really think Verlander is a great pitcher, or are you saying that people will probably argue with you if you say he is, or are you saying, “One could argue that Justin Verlander is one of the best pitchers in the American League”? It’s supposed to be a positive statement about Verlander’s pitching ability, but I always imagine people arguing whenever I read that word, and it makes me wonder. So I’m not going to use it (but you may if you like). P.S. Justin Verlander is one of the best pitchers in the American League. He just had a bad year last year.
Am I saying I’ll never use any of these tired words when I write ad or website copy? No, and you’d probably be able to find copy I’ve written where I’ve used more than one, either by client request or because I feel it’s the best choice for the situation. As a Hile creative, though, I try to avoid sounding as if I missed my daily McCafe and just went into autopilot, spinning out the first words that come to mind.
Do you have words or phrases that you’re just tired of hearing? Let me know. I might utilize them in a future post!