Words to Avoid—2020 Edition
Words are powerful.
They can inspire, exclude, heal, amuse, and more.
We’re not saying to banish these words from your organization’s vocabulary. In fact, in some contexts or situations, they may be the best. But from our experience, they’ve been overused and gone unquestioned for too long, so let’s give them a little bit of scrutiny.
While Serena Williams’s serve is impeccable, nonprofits should consider using another term to frame what they do. Not only is “serve” overused (especially in the social services sector), it can also perpetuate negative narratives.
“Serve” is transactional. It suggests that the organization is the “giver,” and that anyone who takes part in programs is a “receiver” at best or a “taker” at worst. Try looking for words that capture collaborative relationships between staff and clients, highlight individual agency, and speak to long-term change.
2. Stay tuned
A call to action is a short invitation for someone to take a specific action. “Stay tuned” is an invitation to do nothing. It says, “We’re excited! But for now you’ll have to wait.” We’re guilty of using it at Big Duck.
Over the past year, we’ve seen “diversity” thrown around a lot. It leads the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion trifecta and is easy shorthand for “many different types.” To overcome the hollowness that comes with overuse, we recommend clarifying the kind of diversity you’re talking about. Is it racial diversity? Cultural? Educational? If you’re unable to be specific, readers will simply see a buzzword with nothing behind it.
The period we’re living in certainly feels extreme, but drastic language doesn’t always offer the best footing for progress. In this short essay, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, makes the case for embracing nuance and complexity in how we communicate. While extreme and inflammatory language may be useful to incite certain audience to take action in the moment, it forsakes the mutual understanding needed to achieve common goals over time.
The dictionary insists that “disrupt” has two definitions: 1. to interrupt something by causing a disturbance 2. to drastically alter or destroy the structure of something. But we’d argue that it doesn’t mean anything—and hasn’t for a while. What once may have been a useful word, “disrupt” has been rendered useless by rampant mis- and overuse. Anything passes as disruptive nowadays. And almost always, a more accurate word can be used in its place.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “What? I never see this word,” then you’d be right. This word is uncommon in the nonprofit sector, but pervasive in practice. Nominalization is when someone creates a noun from a verb, adjective, or adverb. Words like heteronormativity, globalization, and seriousness are all nominalizations.
Nominalizations may rivet certain audiences, especially those in academic or legal fields, but are alienating and uninspiring to the wider public. We suggest keeping nominalizations to a minimum so your writing stays fresh, active, and welcoming to all.
As the sector has grown and evolved, we think there’s value in examining the most widely used word in the field. Created in opposition to the for-profit norm, “nonprofit” is a bit confusing as a catch-all phrase (given the number of different classifications, causes, and tax-exempt statuses) and misses the opportunity to speak to the greater vision that unites the sector.
Thomas Negron, Communications Director at NTEN and former Big Duck staff member summarized it best, “Can we drive a stake through the heart of the word ‘nonprofit’ itself? Too many people think that if an organization has money in the bank, pays a living wage, or offers benefits then it’s not run well because then 100% of raised money isn’t going to program recipients. Plus, it’s focused on what we don’t do (distribute income to owners and shareholders) rather than what we achieve.”
Does this mean that Big Duck is planning to rename the “nonprofit” sector? No, not this year.
As always, we offer this list to encourage you to question ubiquitous language and challenge yourself to make clearer and more meaningful word choices in 2020 and beyond. Happy writing.