The 10 Most Common Words You Should Stop Using Now

173 Comments

trady1.jpg
Is this what your thinking looks like?
[Thanks for the Japanese vending machine, Woesinger!]

Words are thoughts.

The better we choose our words, the more we hone our thinking machine, and just like software, it’s a case of GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage Out. Thinking hard is pointless if we don’t use the right tools.

Think and speak with precision. Less is often more. Here are 10 common words I have observed to cause stress, depression, and conflict due to their vagueness. All of them are overused to the point of being meaningless. The solution? Stop using them and find more descriptive alternatives. I recommend focusing on removing one or two each week, even if just as an exercise.

In no particular order…

1. Happiness
2. Success
3. Should
4. Responsible
5. Realistic
6. Reasonable
7. Spiritual
8. Good/Right
9. Bad/Wrong
10. Moral

Do you love some of these? Most of us do. But… try and define them without using an equally vague synonym or a tautology.

But why do we love them?

Because they remove the heavy lifting of real thinking. These socially-accepted throwaway terms are crutches for unclear thinking, just like “thing”, “stuff”, or “interesting”–enemies of good writers worldwide. But the above 10 are much more dangerous, as they encourage us to compare, judge, or fool ourselves and others.

Trim the fat and cultivate your thinking with more creative and expressive word choice. As Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

Posted on: July 27, 2007.

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173 comments on “The 10 Most Common Words You Should Stop Using Now

  1. Tim won’t publish this, even though I’ve bought his books plus copies for my friends, which are many. I’ve been using the word “c*nt” for many years now with great success. It’s just got a nice ring to it. My friends, know I’m serious when I use this word, and their wives and girlfriends, take me seriously.

    Break out of the mould Tim, be a daredevil, and use the word. It worked for Tony Soprano, it can work for you.

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  2. Nice post. I agree for the most part (Especially regarding “happiness”, “good”, and “bad”.) Of course, I don’t think it’s *realistic* or that many people will be likely to adopt your ideas :)

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  3. Also, your general argument about the ways in which language shapes our thinking would definitely be good material for future exploration/blogging. Perhaps you’ve already expanded on it in some other post…

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  4. Computing and law use some of the words on this list as terms of art.

    For example, information technology gives specific meanings to “should”, “success”, and “responsible”. RFC 2119 documents best practice in using modal verbs, defining “SHOULD” as “there may exist valid reasons in particular circumstances to ignore a particular item, but the full implications must be understood and carefully weighed before choosing a different course.” I define “success” to mean reaching any endpoint in a well-defined procedure that is not a “failure” point. And a module of a computer program is “responsible” for the behaviors that other modules expect of it.

    In legal systems descended from the common law of England, “reasonable person” denotes a fictional character used to establish a standard of care in a negligence case, “succeed” (the verb form of “success”) means to establish a balance of probabilities in one’s favor, and “responsible” is roughly synonymous with liability in general. What words would you use instead for these concepts?

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  5. I could not agree more. These words are vague and do not help us gain awareness into what we are feeling or sensing. I find the word “stress” to function in a similar way. People will use the word to define a range of emotions that are all quite different. And by using this word you are not able to really understand what you are feeling at all.

    I have a degree in comparative religion, meaning many people tell me about how they are spiritual, but not religious. What they MEAN is that they don’t go to church or are part of an organized religious institution. I’ve heard this dozens of times “Oh, I’m not religious, but I do pray, read religious texts, and generally try to be a good person – you know, I’m spiritual!” No, my dear friend, you are religious. :) People mean well, though.

    In the same vein, I wish businesses would stop using “solutions”. Ugh. What a meaningless phrase. When you see that word used you can go ahead and assume the marketing department from that company doesn’t have the first clue about what they’re selling.

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  6. The number 1 word I removed long ago was “Confidence”. No word has confused people seeking comfort in their being & world more than thinking there is a bundle of qualities that can have a single name attached to it.

    It has created empty cocky-ness and an over compensative lifestyle.

    – Experience is Confidence.
    – Remaining benign while acting upon challenges is Confidence.
    – Making the creative aspect of your sexuality universal is Confidence.

    confidence is Not Confidence – it’s BS.

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  7. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit my
    comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.

    Anyways, just wanted to say wonderful blog!

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  8. I love this list, Tim. Great discussion on words we ‘should’ never use. Here are some words I have removed from my vocabulary and/or are pet peeves:
    1. No
    2. Not
    3. Don’t
    4. But
    5. Truthfully
    6. To tell you the truth…

    Thanks again for sharing and encouraging this lively discussion.
    Tandy

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    • Hello everyone. Just came across this site while searching for help in eliminating the phrase “you know” at the end of many of my sentences. I seem to use this phrase whenever I speak rapidly. I realize that I want immediate agreement from my listener or confirmation that they are still paying attention to me. Now that I am aware that I use this phrase frequently, it is extremely annoying to me. I have also noticed that I have family members who use this phrase frequently. Any suggestions as to how I can break this annoying habit? I am trying to speak more thoughtfully but sometimes when I become excited or upset about a subject I tend to repeat this phrase. Any suggestions?

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  9. I think what’s more important is not eliminating these words, but understanding how these words are being used. These words are not in themselves meaningless, vague, or tautological, but are tools for a certain kind of understanding or interpretation.

    A lot of the words you listed I hate myself (except for spiritual), but I am very fascinated with how they are used to produce certain interpretations, and how other words can be used in very much the same way.

    Think, for example, of the role of your post: to provide us with a certain interpretation of a “responsible” way of using our speech. “Stop using them and find more descriptive alternatives.” We might as well put, “You should stop using them…” since it creates the same effect. And if it creates the same effect, then what’s the difference if I use the word or not?

    Eliminating words from our vocabulary is useless: words, in themselves, have no power. They are no more garbage than they are precious treasures. It’s how we UNDERSTAND the words that makes the difference. This is classic Wittgenstein all the way. Language is a game, constructed of games. Change the rules of the game (not the pieces of the game: chess can equally be played with dimes, pennies, quarters, rocks, instead of game pieces) and you change the game.

    Here’s what I would suggest: instead of eliminating the words, why don’t we analyze how they are being used. Analyze in which situations they are used, and for what purpose are they used. Ask yourself, “What rules govern the usage of these words?” Then ask yourself, “How can I change the rules?”

    Then I think we’ll be going somewhere.

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