Friday, March 14, 2008

Overused Terms and Phrases: My Four Peeves

After spending the morning working on some client copy, I began thinking about words and phrases that are overused in ads, web copy, and business communication. I'm an easygoing person generally, but I get irrationally annoyed by certain words and phrases. Here are a few of my top annoyances.

"...that's right for you." As in, "ask your insurance agent about the coverage that's right for you." Another variation is to ask whether something is "right for you," as in "ask your doctor whether Prozac is right for you." It always strikes me as a little smarmy, and it's probably because it's such obvious ad-speak--nobody really talks like that. What really gets me, though, is when you're watching those pharmaceutical ads when the two friends are talking casually about their hemorrhoids and the one friend says to the other, "you should ask your doctor if Preparation H is right for you." Nobody says that!

Solution. Is it just me, or is the word "solution" overused? Nothing is a gadget, a piece of software, a toupee, or any specific product anymore. They're all solutions. Look, I understand that the word "solution" is popular in business because solutions solve problems, and you want to show customers that your product solves their problem. But what's wrong with calling it what it is...and then telling them how it solves their problems?

"...and more!" Okay, sometimes I confess I use this one. You know, you're writing copy for a website or something and you're listing all the fantastic services the business provides, including "stump removal, nose hair trimming, life coaching...and more!" That "and more" at the end is there to give the impression that so many services are involved that we can't possibly list them all here; what you see here is only a very small fraction of the benefits you receive by signing on with this company. But it's overused--and as with "...that's right for you," nobody really talks like that. It just sounds contrived.

Utilize. I seriously hate this word. What's wrong with the word "use"? It's short, direct, to the point, and it sounds natural. "Utilize" doesn't add any extra meaning; it's just empty syllables. It's only one example of other corporate-speak words out there that have perfectly serviceable everyday counterparts and seem to be, used...just to show off the speaker's SAT vocabulary.

In business, there seems to be a trend towards words that obscure meaning, rather than define it. The problem is that these phrases give the impression that something's a bit off. There's the thought that if you don't tell customers to ask an expert whether something is "right for you" before buying, they could discover your product is seriously NOT "right for you" and sue your pants off. If you don't beat your readers over the head with the idea that your product is actually a solution, they might realize it doesn't actually solve problems at all. If you don't use empty-syllable words like "utilize" all the time, people might realize what it is you're actually saying--and that might turn out to be not much.

I think most of these phrases bother me because they're not specific. Specificity in copy is important--it removes the distance between yourself and your reader, and it makes you seem more honest and forthright. The more you can do that, the more people will understand your message--and trust you enough to buy.


Star Lawrence said...

Oooo--fun one. Well, solutions tops my list, too. I once was a proofreader for the American Chemical Society and they wouldn't use the word proven...just proved. Lie and lay--always used wrong. Grates on me. Also adverbs--"I have been doing good." WELL!
"At the end of the day"--ACK! Wait--now I am into cliches. You got me foaming.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, kudos on your post. I've worked mostly in start-ups.

In my opinion, "robust" should be banned. Everytime I hear or see it, it makes me want to cringe.

Another one that I hate is when someone hands me a project and asks me to "massage the content."

They might as well run their fingers down a chalkboard.

Jennifer Williamson said...

@Star: "Proven" is another one, as in "proven solution"--especially when the solution really hasn't been proven at all and they're asking you to make up the testimonials!

@Anon: I've never had anyone ask me to "massage" the content before--I had no idea our job could actually sound dirty, but that phrase does it!

Star Lawrence said...

I've had clients suggest I "run it through my word processor" in order to make it sound like it's not writing and wouldn't cost much.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jennifer. I have to add "increasingly" to the list. It seems innocent enough but if you listen closely, it's everywhere--TIME magazine, CNN, news articles, blogs, etc. It doesn't add much value. I wish people would use "is" instead.

BTW, I enjoy your blog. Thanks for sharing so much info.

Anonymous said...

You may like "solution" more after hearing this gem from a childhood friend of mine:

"If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the precipitate."

I think you're on your way to a paradigm change here. It's revolutionary.

Here's a sure sign of a pedant: Using "orthoganal" to mean "unrelated". Oh, and by the way, whether it means that is orthogonal to whether I'm right.

"But wait, there's more!" -- famous Ron Popiel. Who doesn't want a cap snaffler? I know I do.

Bill said...

Who doesn't love a good pet peeve rant? My current black list includes the phrase "at this time". They must tattoo it on the forehead of every police public relations officer and politician when they get their hot air license. "We have failed to apprehend the suspect at this time," -- ooh, sound so ever so much smarter than "we haven't gotten him yet." Not.

By the way, there's a nifty little three-letter word for "at this time". It's now.

Anonymous said...

I get all beady-eyed when I see "utilize," too, but I recently found out it has a specific meaning: "to use something for other than its intended purpose." For example: I utilized my shoe to pound the nail."

That's the only way I will use the word, although in my job I'm always having to explain this to the people who want to use the "fancier, more formal" word. *sigh*

P.S. -- Can you tell me how to use the Open ID option below for your blog? I tried to log in using my WordPress ID but nothing happens ...

Mentally Sane said...

"New and Improved!"

Ok, seriously! How is something both 'new' and 'improved'? The product is either new, meaning never before available; or it is improved, meaning that it existed before but is now enhanced in some way.

This phrase irks me to no end!

Star Lawrence said...

Great letter to the editor in the Arizona Republic: The guy was talking about foreclosure and said, "Quit beating a dead horse with a broken record." Wish I had said that. Was it Ocasr Wilde who answered that by saying, "You will, you will."

Anonymous said...

This post cracks me up. As much as I know it's fruitless to "ban" annoying or overused phrases, I admit a bunch of them torque me off, too.

I totally agree with you on "utilize" and Star on "at the end of the day." One that irritates me locally is the use of "locked up" in the news--both print and TV. It makes the criminal sound like he was unfairly taken hostage instead of arrested for wrongdoing.

Anonymous said...

I'm 90% in agreement with you, but I had to laugh at your first pet peeve. I'm a social worker, and I probably encourage people to do "what's right for them" twenty times a day or more. No wonder that phrase creeps into my writing so often. :)

Anonymous said...

How could this have been overlooked - it is the WORST