Say What You Mean


Once on a bus I overheard a couple of teenagers having a conversation that sounded something like this:

“So, I’m like… and she’s like…So, I go…”

“You didn’t!  So, she’s like….. and you’re like…”

“Yeah, no kidding!”

“Get out!”

No one could accuse these kids of being wordy. The staccato phrases were accompanied by facial expressions and hand gestures that doubtless conveyed more information than the words themselves. The ability to communicate this way is impressive, but it works only in a context of a shared and fairly limited experience.

Many adults do the opposite when they rely on clichés, euphemisms and jargon in writing and speaking. They use many words to convey almost no information. Take the ubiquitous expression to have issues with or about something or someone. I suspect the phrase comes from the counselling professions, where it may serve to soften a potential diagnosis. “You have anger issues about your mother” sounds better than “You hate your mother.” The softening lies in the imprecision of the phrase. But precision is a virtue in communication. Consider the following exchange:

“I’m going to order pizza. How about pepperoni?

“No, I have issues with pepperoni.”

Unless pepperoni has an unspeakable effect on you, saying you have issues with it seems unnecessarily circumspect. You might be allergic to it, or you don’t eat it for religious reasons, or you’re a vegetarian—whatever it is, it makes more sense just to just say it

Good writers vary their vocabulary and use concrete terms that convey specific information. Jargon is a specialized vocabulary that often includes unnecessary variants of simple words: prioritize for rank. Euphemisms can soften a harsh truth as a matter of taste, but some—collateral damage, to cite a famous example—are used to mask deadly truths.

Try revising the following jargon- and cliché-ridden sentences (you have to make up the missing information):

  1. Cost-wise, the proposed restructuring is way off base.
  2. The new secretary is a force to be reckoned with.
  3. The oil executives have been getting a free lunch.
  4. The dinner was awesome.
  5. The lecture offered a meaningful learning experience.
  6. At the end of the day, the university must become a center of excellence.

Possible revisions: 1. The proposed restructuring is $5,000 over budget. 2. The new secretary is outspoken and extremely competent. 3. The oil executives have received more than $20 million in bonuses. 4. The dinner featured succulent curried lamb chops on a bed of quinces. 5. The lecture covered ten easy ways to save on groceries. 6. This sentence is meaningless.

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