Thursday, May 03, 2012

You and the overused word: A major problem of historic proportions

Do you have a thesaurus (or a link to one) handy? Better send it up to the state house in Albany, where the strategy of announcing many of the governor's initiatives as "historic" has come under the lens of the New York Times. And the idea that the adjective bears repeating is taking a beating. Of the governor's penchant for apparently historic moves, the Times wrote:
On his fifth day in office, he challenged lawmakers to “write a new page in the history book of New York State government,” and his administration has done just that more than 80 times, judging by the number of press releases issued by his office that described one of the governor’s actions as historic.
You know you're in trouble when they pull out all the press releases and start searching for word usage, and in this case, the Times found the term in releases, presentations, verbal remarks and more. Want to stay out of that historic trap of major proportions? Typically, the trouble includes these factors:
  • The repetitive term's a distraction: "There's that word again," wrote a reporter live-blogging a statehouse news conference. Just like too many ums or overuse of words like "actually" in public speaking, overusing a favorite messaging word means that at some point, close observers will start counting how many times you use it--and at that point, they're not listening to or reading you.
  • All those internal rationales don't fly outside your office: I can hear someone saying "But it really is historic!" even now. Despite that, it's not an argument that will hold water beyond your close circles. Just think of all the historians out there to whom you've given the chance to write op-eds explaining exactly why your initiative isn't historic.
  • Everything can't have the same status: As the Times points out, not all of the initiatives smack of historic proportions, and if all your programs are historic, all your grants are major, all your students are above average and all the food is safe, you're removing what makes them special and attention-getting by giving them the same status.
  • This happens a lot with adjectives and adverbs: If you're going to keep a sharp editor's eye on something, adjectives and adverbs are usually the culprits in tempting.  You can nip this in the writing bud by insisting on more concrete nouns and active verbs to describe your products, programs and people.
  • Alternatives do exist: Repeat after me: But first, do a word search on your documents to see what your most overused words are, and keep a list of them posted as a warning. At a major foundation I worked for, we actually banned the word "major" from descriptors of our grants for a while, and you may need a similar no-fly list.

1 comment:

Joe Bonner said...

Wordle or another word cloud generator would be great for this.