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January 13, 2011

Words to Avoid—2011 Edition

It’s a popular exercise, at the end of one year and beginning of the next, to make lists. We like lists, too.

Last January’s “Words for Nonprofits to Avoid in 2010” turned out to be our most popular blog post of 2010. It warms the cockles of my heart to know that you all value words so much. As I look again at last year’s list, I’m also pleased to see that I stand by my advice with regard to the words system, infrastructure, capacity, impact, and catalyst. And as for Web site, I’m thrilled that the latest edition of the AP Stylebook has agreed to call website standard.

I’m not a totalitarian when it comes to words. I’ve got strong opinions on the subject, some of which are below, but heck, it’s your voice. Use the words you want to use.

And remember that it is, in fact, your voice. Or your organization’s. You have a unique perspective, so your voice should also be unique. (By the way, unique is a word I usually avoid, unless I actually mean “one-of-a-kind.”)

With that caveat, then, I’ve asked for input from my Big Duck colleagues, and we offer you a few words that might be worth avoiding in the next year. Some are jargon; some just personally annoy one or more of us; and some we’re guilty of using ourselves.

In these economic times

As we slog our way through this recession (recovery?), this phrase continues to get a lot of play from nonprofits, colleges, and others raising money. But can times be economic? If they can, wouldn’t all times be economic then? It makes my head spin. And it becomes a meaningless phrase pretty quickly. Instead of using in these economic times, get specific. Explain how the economy is affecting your programming or why giving to your organization should be a priority even while people are struggling.

More than ever

Have you used the phrase, “Your donation is needed now more than ever” (or some variation) in your fundraising efforts? I’m certainly guilty of using it. Sometimes it’s even true. Right after a natural disaster, for example, emergency donations really are needed more than ever. The problem, of course, is that it’s desperately overused. And if your audiences see it every fundraising cycle, pretty soon they’ll either think you’re lying, or that you’re always in a state of desperation. Probably not the best impression to leave on your audiences. Find a different phrase that compels people to act.

In politics, the overused phrase is “the most important election of our lifetime.” I have enough memories of enough elections to know that the upcoming election is always the most important election of our lifetime. Sometimes it’s true (I’ve certainly believed it more than once), but it’s a phrase that loses meaning when you hear it every election cycle, from the presidential campaign all the way down to city council.

Take it to the next level

We can use take it to the next level in a lot of contexts. Sometimes we ask donors to give more money than they usually do (“Take your donation to the next level!”). Sometimes we ask activists to volunteer more time for our cause (“Take your commitment to the next level!”). Sometimes we want to tout the exciting growth at our organization (“We’re taking our program to the next level!”). Well, therein lies the problem: it’s universal because it’s generic. When I catch myself using it, I can’t help but feel that I’ve been lazy. There’s certainly a better, clearer way of putting it. Get specific. Specificity will take your writing to the next level!


Those of us who make our living using our creative skills to satisfy clients’ needs may have heard this word creeping into regular use in the marketing vernacular. There’s nothing wrong with the word itself, and to say that I sit here ideating for much the day isn’t necessarily wrong. It just sounds pretentious. And I suspect that agencies use this word to keep the creative process hidden in a shroud of intellectual mystery, to make you–the client–feel like it’s this thing you will never understand. You’re on the outside of it, and nanny-nanny-boo-boo. Perhaps I overreact–and, frankly, using ideate is probably the most direct way to say that we come up with creative ideas–but it’s a pompous word that takes the life out of what we do, which, truth be told, is mostly fun. We brainstorm, we collaborate, and we think creatively. I don’t like the idea that I’m sitting here ideating.


I rather enjoy Vice President Joe Biden. He’s like everyone’s favorite uncle. He’s affable and smart, and he very often says something utterly ridiculous. He also uses literally way too frequently and totally incorrectly. If you haven’t noticed it before, listen to a speech or a press appearance. He’s loves the word literally. And many people do. It’s used for emphasis, and I get that, but no, you did not literally die from laughing.


This very nearly made the list last year, and I’ve added it to this year’s list because its use shows no signs of abating. If you’re talking about your computer network’s actual ability to process and transmit data (and the like), please feel free to use bandwidth to your heart’s content. If you’re talking about how busy you are, however, or someone’s availability to work on something… Well, I tend to err on the side of humanizing. Especially in the nonprofit world. We are humans doing work that ultimately serves other humans. (This is similar to my issue with infrastructure on last year’s list.) Let’s not talk about ourselves as if we’re computers. This one really ruffles some feathers over here at Big Duck, which is funny, because we’re also guilty of using it. A lot.


In 1960, Billy Wilder made a terrific film (written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) called The Apartment. (If you haven’t seen it, remedy that immediately.) The original poster had this blurb on it: “Movie-wise, there has never been anything like ‘The Apartment’ love-wise, laugh-wise, or otherwise-wise.” In the film, there was a supporting character who added -wise to a lot of his words. I wasn’t alive in 1960, but I suspect that the writers were satirizing something common in the business world at the time. I think maybe we’re entering a similar phase with -centric. Here at Big Duck, we already use audience-centric, organization-centric, and user-centric with some regularity. Lately, I’ve heard it added to other words. And I think we’re in a danger zone when we start hearing about “William and Kate-centric” travel tours.

The cloud

Boy, this one’s a real problem. “Cloud computing” is (or was) a specific technology. (If you’d like to know about the specific technology, this video is very helpful.) But now “the cloud” is thought of as a magic solution to any technological problem (“To the cloud!”), or, perhaps even worse, “the cloud” is synonymous with the internet. It’s probably best to avoid using “the cloud” for the time being until the world has settled on a final meaning. Good thing I warned you: I bet a lot of you nonprofiteers have been throwing it around willy-nilly, wacky do-gooders that you are.


(Also, the Twitterati, and anything else found in the Twittonary.) Truth be told, I find some of these words to be quite fun, and I rather wish there was an easier way to browse the Twittonary. But let’s avoid these words in formal writing. What do you say?
There are many more. And some of you may have your own words–or even your own lists. What words are getting too much play in your sphere? How about sphere? Let’s continue the conversation in the comments.
Thanks for reading and have a happy year of writing, nonprofit fans!


To put together this year’s list, we did a bit of research and found a couple of nice links that include jargony, overused vocabulary you might want to avoid (or at least be aware of):

  • It was the Lake Superior State University’s annual list of “banished words” that inspired the original post. So once again, we offer a shout-out. I’m particularly happy to see fail and wow factor on their 2011 list.
  • The New York Times’s annual “Words of the Year” article is always a pleasure and includes words that annoy (such as belieber) and words that bring pleasure (long live the vuvuzela).
  • Count on Advertising Age to be three steps ahead of the rest of us with their list of “Jargoniest Jargon” that includes some terms we’ve never even heard before. So the good news is that they’re not all overused yet!
  • We also rather liked this compilation of the Top Ten Overused Buzzwords on LinkedIn Profiles. So if you’re looking for job opportunities, this list might be useful for you. Also of note and/or interest: there’s a lot of overlap between how people describe their most employable selves and how nonprofits describe themselves to their various audiences.

If you enjoy lists like these, a cursory Google search will get you many, many more.

Dan Gunderman

Dan Gunderman is the Former Creative Director at Big Duck

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