Smithson: This column is like…incredible…literally

It is important for us all—employers included—to write in a way that gets our message across.

A while back, I wrote a column entitled: Use Writing As A Tool, Don’t Be One.

The point of that column was to encourage business people (myself included) to adopt some basic steps to improve their workplace writing.

As I said then, even with all the technology at our disposal, the written word is still our primary mode of communication.

It is important for us all—employers included—to write in a way that gets our message across without confusing or offending readers.

The first of those steps was eliminating needlessly complex phrases such as “pursuant to.” Nobody speaks that way, so why would we write that way?

Write the way you would speak. Say what you mean, say it simply, and say it briefly (if possible). There is no necessity to continuously prove your intelligence to everyone around you.

The second recommended step is to ditch the “us versus them” mentality.

This attitude can become institutionalized and can plant the seeds for discontent, confrontation and, eventually, a telephone call to a local union organizer.

A third step is to get rid of mealy-mouthed phrases such as “it has been decided.” That’s a well-entrenched corporate strategy for passing the buck but everybody sees through it.

Say what needs to be said. Don’t candy-coat it, and don’t waste space implying that somebody else was responsible for the decision.

A fourth step, and probably the best of the bunch, is to stop trying to sound like lawyers!

We’re viewed as jerks by much of society, so why would you want to sound like us?

Beyond those ideas, I’ve been noticing more recently that, in both written and verbal communications, there are some words which are drastically overused.

Replacing these trite little chestnuts would, in my view, do us a world of good in our communications.

One word which gives me the urge to pummel my computer screen with a coffee mug is “obviously.”

People who are smugly making a point to a person who has a contrary point of view often resort to the use of “obviously.”

As in, “Obviously, I should have been given the time off for my trip.”

Can’t you tell, by the fact that the person you’re communicating with disagrees with you, that your point isn’t exactly obvious?

Another word that I think is drastically overused these days is “admitted,” as in: “Mr. Harper admitted that his government hasn’t fully addressed the issue.”

My issue with admitted is it suggests a degree of reluctance or unwillingness and, therefore, implies wrongdoing or guilt on the part of the speaker.

There are many contexts in which more neutral—less loaded—words such as “acknowledged,”  “noted” and “commented” would be far more appropriate.

If you listen to radio news at all (CBC, you know I’m talking about you), you’ll be familiar with what I call, “that shortcut.” This is the use of the word “that” to avoid having to actually take a couple of seconds to describe the subject.

As in, “There’s more news on that flood in Sicamous.” I’m not sure why, but this shortcut really bothers me.

Perhaps because it just seems lazy. Would it take that much more effort to say, “There’s more news on the flood which struck the B.C. community of Sicamous last week?”

I couldn’t address overused words without mentioning the scourge that is the word “like.”

Living, as I do, with two teenaged boys, I hear the word “like” many, many times per day.

I have, however, developed a little trick which, if nothing else, serves to make the like abuser as irritated as me.

When, for instance, one of my sons says something to the effect of: “It was, like, crazy hot out,” I’ll interrupt and ask, “So…just so I’m clear, was it actually crazy hot out or was it just like it was crazy hot out?”

Satisfying, perhaps, but seemingly ineffectual at altering the bad habit.

And, the hand-in-hand partner to “like” often will be “literally.” Funnily (to me, anyway), people often use literally when, in fact, the exact opposite is the case, as in: “It was so, like, crazy hot that I literally almost died!”  Really? Did you really almost die? Because, in fact, I don’t think you did.

But (and I believe this column has now progressed into a rant), my absolute least favourite word of the moment is “incredible.”

Spend some time watching television or listening to the people around you for a day or so, and count the number of times people use this word as their adjective of choice. As in, “There was an incredibly long lineup at the checkout when I was buying groceries.”

Really? Was the length of the lineup really incredible?

Because, the word incredible means too extraordinary and improbable to be believed. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t grasp that absolutely everything in our world can be incredible.

So, perhaps try some other adjectives such as tremendous, fantastic, or extraordinary.

Adopting even a few of these guidelines would make our written and verbal communications incredibly better.  Like, literally.

Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer, and operates Smithson Employment Law in Kelowna.



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