Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels
4 min Read
January 19, 2012

Words to Avoid—2012 Edition

The great thing about English is that it offers lots of word choice to us writers. So if there are words we don’t like because they’re overused or seemingly meaningless or jargonically nonsensical, we can usually avoid them. It’s also a great language for making up words, such as jargonical.

And although there are words I avoid (or try to avoid, anyway), I’m a writer. I want a full arsenal of words available to me. In general, I don’t like blacklisting words.

So with that caveat (to go along with the caveats expressed in the 2010 and 2011 Words to Avoid posts), I offer you the 2012 Big Duck list of words that nonprofits should avoid (or at least think twice about using).

Ask (as a noun)
In the nonprofit world, we spend a lot of time asking for things from people. Especially when it comes time to ask for money (say, in a direct mail or email appeal), we have best practices (see below) and guidelines to follow. A direct mail appeal, for example, should include four asks. As you develop your letter, it’s fine to talk about the asks in terms of “asks.” But let’s not let that word slip into the letter itself. It’s an insider’s view of raising money. Asks (as a noun) isn’t a word used in most people’s lives. Ask (as a verb) doesn’t carry the same insider baggage.

Best practices
I hope you pay attention to the best practices in your area of work. At Big Duck, we spend a lot of time talking about and debating best practices. So this is another term that’s totally fine in some contexts, especially in your internal meetings. But once you use best practices to communicate with your audiences, you isolate them. Best practices is just another insider way of talking about things. And you immediately exclude the people you most want to include.

There’s nothing really wrong with this word, but I submit issue because it’s sometimes used as a softer term for problem. I wish we could all just admit that we’ve got big problems in this world, and our nonprofit organizations are here to address them. Issues are eternal and general. Problems are more specific and urgent. So human rights might be your issue, and it’s an ongoing struggle. But people dying–that’s a real problem that needs to be taken care of immediately.

I don’t know when nonprofits might need this word, but you never know. You can probably guess why you should avoid it–the Occupy Movement pretty much owns the word right now.

We’ve been hearing a lot of misuse of this word lately: “I resonate with that.” Perhaps you relate to that. Or maybe it resonates with you. But generally speaking, you don’t resonate with something.

I guess it’s just not enough to be a leader anymore. Maybe thought-leader is meant to be a more specific term. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen or heard thought-leader in a context where it couldn’t be put in better terms. Also, it’s another example of language you might use internally seeping out into the language you use for your external audiences. At Big Duck, we talk about wanting to be considered thought-leaders within the nonprofit communications field, but we try to keep that talk internal. In fact, by using thought-leader five times in this section, I’ve increased our public usage by 250%. You’re welcome.

As I was asking around the office for suggestions on words to avoid, moist was the most frequent, independently mentioned term that came up. Which is particularly funny because my colleagues know that I was asking for their thoughts for the Duck Call blog, which is about nonprofit communications. But there you go: the Ducks, in general, recommend avoiding the word moist because it skeeves out some of us. I personally don’t mind the word moist because it reminds me of my brother-in-law’s carrot cake. I have never met its equal.

A special comment about impact
I’m not ready to throw in the towel on this one yet. I understand the appeal of impact, especially for nonprofits. It says that you’re accomplishing goals, something funders want. It’s a short word. It’s even vaguely onomatopoetic. Bam! Impact!

I just think you probably have better options available to you, something that doesn’t have the implications of impacted wisdom teeth or an asteroid hitting the earth. We’re the nonprofit world: we want to move people in our communications. Impact is a hard word (not difficult, but physically hard). I don’t doubt that there are organizations for which impact is a terrific word to use. But think about whether it’s really better than something more specific to your mission and the people you serve. I’d much rather hear that you helped Jimmy breathe better than hear that you had a giant impact on Jimmy.

And, by the way, we’re not immune to impact ourselves. It’s one of Big Duck’s values. And although I concur with what follows the word in our description, it’s one of my resolutions for 2012 to come up with an alternative.

As usual, I asked my colleagues for suggestions and also did a bit of research along the way. The Lake Superior State University’s annual list of banished words is always a pleasure. I especially like the introductory paragraph about amazing.

I was also pleased to find the LSSU’s complete list of banished words, which goes all the way back to 1976. The entry for Alexander Haig is hilarious and weird. Caspar Weinberger, alas, gets no such treatment.

Dan Gunderman

Dan Gunderman is the Former Creative Director at Big Duck

More about Dan