Want to speak more clearly? Avoid these 8 overused words

I love words. I love how there are subtle differences in their meaning. I love how minute changes in the number of syllables or the tone of a word can alter the effect of a sentence. I love how a particularly “expensive” word, used correctly, can impart education and bookishness. Conversely, many overused words have become tired clichés which have lost their meaning, unnecessarily complicate sentences or are simply meaningless in their own right.

Otherwise bored on a Saturday afternoon, I came up with this list of the worst offenders (particular to speech—written word is a different story), for your reading pleasure. Lobbed around at the office, by cable news networks, or in flashy corporate presentations, these words actually do more to damage credibility and muddle an otherwise prescient message with jargon-y corporate speak.

Leverage

Why use a simple monosyllabic word when a longer, fancier-sounding word will do?

Example: “We need to leverage our strengths.”

Problem: Leverage is not an adjective; it’s a noun. Subject has leverage. The subject does not leverage a noun. Leverage is a word that is overused in the corporate sphere, primarily by consultants and other sales types in attempts to appear sophisticated.

Say instead: Use. Deploy. Exploit.

Utilize

This is another way to avoid the evidently repugnant word “use”. 

Example: “We need to utilize our strengths.”

Problem: No, no, no. While “utilize” does mean “use”, the former is almost never a good substitute for the latter. Grammar Girl explains this much better than I can. In the meantime, cut it out.

Say instead: Use.

Granularity

This word is pleasantly reminiscent of sugar, but it’s entirely too lyrical for everyday conversation.

Example: “We need more granularity here.”

Problem: What the speaker means in this situation is details or specifics. Those words are just fine.

Say instead: Details. Specifics.

Overarching

It’s almost impossible to sit through a meeting without hearing this one.

Example: “That’s the overarching theme of this presentation.”

Problem: In most situations, this word is often completely unnecessary. What’s the difference between a theme and an overarching theme? Nothing? Then the adjective is useless because it doesn’t modify the noun in the slightest.

Say instead: Nothing.

Very

Those who have little—if any—acquaintance with the concept of superlative often use this word.

Example: “It’s a very big thing.”

Problem: Superlatives exist for a reason. If something’s bigger than big, it’s “enormous”. If something’s hotter than hot, it’s “scalding”. Older than old is “ancient”. Drier than dry is “parched”. Aren’t words fun?

Say instead: Consider whether you need the modifier at all. If you’re in need of an actual superlative to indicate magnitude, try a thesaurus.

Key

“Key” is an overused word that means “important” or “necessary”. Often spoken with breathy emphasis.

Example: “Consistency is key.”

Problem: This has quickly become a tired cliché.

Say instead: Important. Necessary. Vital.

Learnings

This is the inverse of “leverage”—instead of making a verb out of a noun; you’ve done the opposite.

Example: “We had some great learnings from that presentation.”

Problem: This corporate jargon is borderline nonsensical.

Say instead: The word you’re looking for is “lesson”.

Unique

Repeat after me: Unique is a binary state. Unique is a binary state. Unique is a binary state.

Example: “I like it. It’s sort of unique.”

Problem: The answer to the question, “Is it unique?” must always be “yes” or “no”. Uniqueness and non-uniqueness are mutually exclusive—there is no shading. Unique nouns might incidentally also be “rare”, “uncommon”, or “different”, but those adjectives aren’t “unique” (there it is!) to the noun. Remember: things that are unique are “one of a kind”.

Say instead: Rare. Uncommon. Different.

What did I miss? Leave a comment below.

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