One of my first teachers when I arrived in the United States from Cuba, was a collector of words. Sister Margarita was an elderly nun who became my English tutor. Since I didn’t know a word of English, her advice to me was to start writing down words and phrases that I found interesting, not only the ones in my schoolbooks, but everywhere. The ones written on a carton of orange juice, a candy wrapper, a store window, or a directional street sign.
This early practice developed into a habit I carried over to my early career when I was tasked to speak business Spanish, vastly different from the familial version spoken at my parents’ home. I kept notebooks filled with Spanish phrases culled from respected periodicals and business books. This propelled my ascent to progressive levels of responsibility in corporate communications for international companies.
Expert communicators know the importance of a large vocabulary in any language. Message clarity often relies on having a deep well of words to draw from to express the right ideas to the right audience.
When you speak you want people to listen to you. The originality and freshness of your words feed into your credibility and impact. People may not hear past your trite phrases and industry jargon and fail to appreciate your intelligence and talent.
Sister Margarita taught me to love and cultivate language. The English language has some 47,000 words, yet you may be using a mere 7,000. Reading a broad array of media and literature helps to grow your lexicon. But expanding your business vocabulary may require some work, self-awareness, and curiosity.
The term abecedarian means apprentice or someone who is approaching a task with the mind of a neophyte. I love this word, which dates to the 1600s. It was created as a combination of the letters A, B, C, and D and specifically referred to someone who was learning the alphabet.
If you apply this concept to expanding your vocabulary you may unleash your inquisitive nature and creativity. Besides refreshing your vocabulary, you may want to look at overused phrases in your spoken and written communication and find substitutes that are crisper, illustrative, and more contemporary.
When you write an important email, craft the introduction to a presentation, prepare for a media interview, how do you weed through the endless array of idioms, buzzwords, industry terminology and slang phrases that plague our communication? How do you come up with alternatives and refresh your phrase book?
One way is to replace the clichéd phrases with simple words that convey value and deepen understanding.
Here are 12 hackneyed words and phrases to remove and replace in your vocabulary.
(Full disclosure—I’m guilty of using these occasionally. If you catch me, call me out.)
You may be using the word literally the wrong way. It means exactly, precisely, word-for-word. Are you literally going to die if you don’t score Taylor Swift tickets? Not likely.
Replace with: Best to avoid this word altogether.
This word is so overused it has become a filler. It’s a big language pet peeve of mine.
Replace with: Yes or No.
3. Basically. Actually. Really.
Question the need for these words. Do they add anything to the meaning, the tone, or the accuracy of your sentence? Or are you trying to sound erudite?
Replace with: If you answered no to these questions, simply remove them.
It was a great word once, until it was so predictable in business speak that it was rendered meaningless.
Replace with: Different, new, original, unique, distinctive, reimagined.
5. At this point in time.
This makes you sound like you’re trying too hard to make an impression.
Replace with: Now, at present, today.
6. Can I pick your brain?
This is such a trite, roundabout way of asking for help, an opinion or guidance.
Replace with: I need your advice. Can you help me with this problem?
7. Move the needle.
This idiom has long lost its novelty. It was a figurative phrase in the 1980s referencing a pointer on an analog gauge moving in the desired direction. Today, it sounds old-fashioned.
Replace with: Make progress, register impact, achieve results.
8. Hit the ground running.
Is it paratrooper lingo, or marine slang? There’s a better way of saying you’re ready without using this expression.
Replace with: Make the necessary arrangements, prepare in advance.
This phrase dates to engineering marvels at the beginning of the 20th century. Its retirement is overdue.
Replace with: Modern, fresh, creative, updated, sophisticated, current.
10. Cutting edge.
It means sharp effect but is so predictable in the context of innovation that it has lost its edge.
Replace with: Vanguard, progressive, in the forefront.
11. Game changer.
An idiom from the sports world, this phrase now appears to describe every new product, business decision, or political position. But is it an overstatement? Likely.
Replace with: Original, smart, promising.
12. Going forward.
This has become a filler word of sorts, particularly in political speech. What is the alternative? Going backward?
Replace with: In the future, as it evolves, looking ahead, making strides.
These are just a few of my picks of words and phrases to eliminate. Want more?
Every year, the faculty of Lake Superior State University in Michigan releases a list of words that they believe deserve to be “banished” from our vocabularies over “misuse, overuse, and uselessness.” NPR published a summary of the banished picks of the year. Hint: GOAT tops the list.
Speaking in a fluent, current, and original way isn’t easy. But if you listen for trite, overused buzzwords and phrases and substitute them with clear, simple, and expressive ones, you’ll infuse your statements with meaning and make a lasting impact.
What words and phrases will you retire? And what new ones will brighten your vocabulary? Write to me, and I will include your submissions in an upcoming blog post.