October 17, 2007

Words That Don't Work

The language changes. Every language does. So it's always risky to go around saying which words are "good," and which ones are "bad." In a generation or two, those opinions might look pretty stupid.
However, the risk of looking stupid hasn't stopped me before, so here goes. In this message, I'm offering some observations on words that just don't work.


Some years ago I came across a column written by a pundit who was criticizing the sloppy way people were using language. He was writing back in the '50's, but his points seemed pretty relevant. Then he started listing the newly minted words he thought were particularly obnoxious: supermarket, briefcase, freeway.

Uh, oh. Those sound pretty good to me. Back when they were new, they must have grated on his finely tuned ear, but the fact is they filled a need in our language and have stuck around.
Languages change in weird and unpredictable ways. One of the words that I personally think doesn't work is "impact" when used as a verb. For example:

The new equipment impacted our productivity.

To my brain, "impact" sounds like a noun and the only connection I can make to its use as a verb is when we are describing what happens to people's wisdom teeth or their colons. In neither case is the image particularly persuasive. I would rewrite the sentence to say "The new equipment improved [or affected] our productivity" or "The new equipment had an impact on our productivity."

But I have to admit that lots and lots of smart people are using "impact" as a verb without wincing, so maybe it has changed and I'm just out of touch.

It's still worth worrying about, though. Using words incorrectly can undercut our credibility when they appear in an important proposal, sales letter, or e-mail. And using words that the customer misunderstands can prolong our sales process and sometimes create other problems. In fact, we see lots of proposals that are damaged by the author's use of fancy words, or their use of internal jargon, or their misuse of ordinary words. (By the way, my examples will all be drawn from American English, but our readers who are using the Queen's version or who are doing business in another language entirely can probably attest that the same kinds of problems occur around them, too.)

Fancy words are the three- and four-syllable, Latinate beauties that people like to toss in just so you'll think they have an Ivy League education. (After all, isn't that what the ads on the radio promise?) For example, for some reason people love the word "parameters." They'll write something like "during the needs assessment phase of the project, we will examine all the parameters of the problem to determine timeline and cost."

Okay, but is that what they really mean? A "parameter" is a variable or a mathematical limit. They might literally mean that. But a lot of people seem to think "parameter" means something like "scope" or "dimensions." Maybe they're confusing it with the word "perimeter," which means the outer boundary of an area.

To me it would be clearer if they said, "we will examine the problem carefully to determine timeline and cost." Or, instead of "carefully," how about "thoroughly?" Or, "we will examine all aspects of the problem to determine timeline and cost."

As Thoreau said, simplify, simplify, simplify.

When people use their own jargon without thinking about it, they're making a natural human mistake, which is to assume that since they use this language every day at work, everybody else understands it, too. Of course, they often find that when they go home at the end of a busy day they struggle to explain what the heck they do for a living in terms their loved ones can understand.

For example, I remember seeing a proposal letter years ago written by an AT&T account executive, who told the customer that his new phone lines "will be terminated on June 15."

The account executive was surprised when the customer called up in a rage, complaining that AT&T was proposing to remove his lines before they had even been installed! It seems that "to terminate" in telecom jargon means the exact opposite of what it means to the rest of us. It means to bring the line in so that it can be connected to the phone set or switch. I guess that means that if The Terminator worked for a phone company, he would really be an installer, right?

You get the point. We just get so used to our own jargon we forget to make the little translations necessary for clarity.

Finally, I'll end my rant by mentioning some words that people use incorrectly. They don't ruin the document, they don't necessarily create a lot of confusion, but they do produce that little snort that makes us feel the author is just slightly dumber than we are. Most of us enjoy discovering that we're cleverer than another person, but the next reaction is to wonder if we want to choose this individual as our vendor.

AFFECT/EFFECT: Affect is a verb. Effect is a noun. There are very specialized cases where that rule changes, but they won't apply to you unless you're a psychiatrist or a corporate attorney. "His decision affected us." "The invention had an effect on our business plan."

DATA IS/DATA ARE: Everybody who knows a smattering of Latin will argue that "data" is plural. "Datum" is the singular form. Therefore, "data are" seems correct. Well, no, not really. I guess if you're writing a proposal to the Pope in Latin, that's the way you should do it, but if you're writing in English, you need to be aware that we have what are called "collective nouns." These are words like "jury," "team," or "sales force," that represent a group of individuals but which almost always take a singular noun: "The jury is sequestered in the Brown Hotel." "The team is flying to Chicago for a weekend series." "The sales force is gathering in Orlando for training." The word "data" is that kind of noun. Therefore, correct usage in English calls for a singular verb form: "The data is stored in a relational database."

SERVE/SERVICE: I saw a proposal in which a systems integration company promised, "Every facet of our company is oriented to servicing you, the customer." Does that sound odd to you? I'm not sure I want to be "serviced," although I might try it once just to see if I like it.

SIMPLE/SIMPLISTIC: The word "simple" means uncomplicated. The word "simplistic" means, essentially, "stupid." (It really means something like oversimplifying to the point of distortion, but "stupid" is close enough.) Anyway, what kind of impression does a cover letter make when it proudly tells the customer, "We have carefully developed a simplistic solution to assure rapid deployment."

Okay, thanks for letting me complain. I feel better now. And if there are some usages that bug you, go ahead and send them to me. We'll commiserate about how the world is going you know where and people just don't know how to use the language any more!