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February 12, 2013

Words to Avoid—2013 Edition

Gee, now that it’s February, is it too late to think about words to avoid for 2013? Never, nonprofiteers. Never…

I’m including the usual annual caveats about this list of words, especially this: If any word on the list is truly the most effective choice for reaching your reader, please go ahead and use it. I would simply suggest that you ask yourself if it’s truly the most effective choice.

And, with that, here are a few words that Big Duck recommends you avoid (or at least be fully conscious that you’re using):

I’m sure I’ve been guilty of using this one. It’s just too familiar. But let’s remember that unless you’ve been elected to office, you don’t actually have constituents. You have participants, donors, friends, family, or any other word that describes your different audience members.

This is one of those words nonprofits use because it sounds really good. Optimize means “to make something the best.” Bold claim. Even bolder than making something better. We recommend that you just say what you mean. If there’s genuinely nothing you can do to make something better, go ahead and consider it optimized.

Ecosystem (when you don’t mean actual ecosystems)
This one, as a metaphor, has crept into the nonprofit world with aplomb over the past year. Directness is a trusted friend when communicating. Unless you want people to think about biological organisms living in an interconnected natural environment, you’re likely to lose your reader or listener when you use ecosystem in another context.

Interwebs, internuts, FaceSpace, etc.
Some of you might remember 2004. During one of the presidential debates, President George W. Bush referred to the “internets.” Ever since, nearly a decade later, the hipsters of Brooklyn (home of Big Duck) have embraced ironic terms that imply they don’t know how the internet works. Boy, it sure rubs some of the Ducks the wrong way. On a mostly unrelated note, I live in Queens.

Strive, help, work, etc.
Big Duck is definitely guilty of using this group of words, and truth be told, there’s nothing wrong with the words themselves. But they do encourage weak sentence construction. Nonprofits habitually avoid taking credit for the great work they do. It results in passive voice, or sentences like, “We work to protect endangered species.” How about instead, “We protect endangered species”? Please be careful in your use of these words.


I’ve lost the war on impact.
No amount of kvetching (and it’s been several years of it) seems to have any impact on the totally unimpactful way that people use impact. I hereby throw in the towel (although I did keep my 2012 New Year’s resolution to get it out of Big Duck’s values, thanks to some good thinking by Katherine).

But if I admit defeat on this word, will you kind nonprofiteers at least agree not to use impacts, as a plural noun? I recently saw a sentence that went something like this: “We’ve got a week of big impacts in front of us.”

Have we lost total control of our senses, people?! For the love of all that is holy in this life, it must not happen again! Will you grant me that much? Please? I’m actually begging you now.

You guys have any words you’re planning to avoid this year? Tell us in the comments.

Credit where credit is due:
As always, I received much input from colleagues before honing my list. You may (or may not) be surprised to learn that some of them have even stronger opinions about words than I do.

Also, be sure to check out The Lake Superior State University’s annual list of banished words. They always have a few excellent ones on their list. My favorites this year: trending and boneless wings.

Finally, a friend sent me a link to the other day. Lots of words to avoid in there. And if you click the “jargon me” button a few times, you might begin to wonder if they’re not making fun of company names like Big Duck. Hm…

Dan Gunderman

Dan Gunderman is the Former Creative Director at Big Duck

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