5 terms that make linguists cringe

‘Paradigm’ and ‘proud’ are among the clichés that one speechwriter wants to have curtailed, at the very least.

At Inkwell Strategies, we consider love and tolerance to be of the utmost importance. However, as professional writers, there are some words and phrases for which I have neither love nor tolerance. Whether they’re rampantly overused, constantly misused, entirely too vague or simply really, really annoying, some terms have an uncanny knack for making me cringe.

I’m not about to picket on the National Mall and demand that these words and phrases be scourged from our lexicon and banished from the face of the Earth. (I reserve that honor for “Grey’s Anatomy.”) Still, I would like to see the use of these terms reduced, reformed and, for crying out loud, corrected.

Until that happens, I direct our speechwriting hatred toward the following words and phrases:

1. Paradigm

Somewhere along the way people decided that this multi-syllabic buzzword was a quick and easy way to sound smart without the grunt work that comes with actual thinking. How many times have you heard a significant event be mislabeled as a “paradigm shift” when in reality it’s nothing close? Save for scientists and high school juniors studying for the SATs, next to nobody knows what “paradigm” means, yet it remains a common term in public discourse. This is one paradigm that needs shifting.

2. Proud

Proud is a word that tends to get public figures into sticky situations. Why, you ask? Because it’s a sin! Pride, along with lust, gluttony and some other vices we’ve long since forgotten make up the seven deadly sins, yet politicians constantly use this word to express themselves and end up looking pompous and delusional. That needs to stop. We’re looking at you, Donald Trump.

3. “The American people”

Any statement that lumps together more than 300 million people is a gross over-generalization, if not completely false—so why do politicians insist on using this term? The label is rhetorically lazy because there’s bound to be more specific common ties within an audience than the mere coincidence of being born in the same country.

4. Literally

This one applies mainly to the under-30, social media-using demographic. Young people today use this word so often for emphasis that it has lost all of the meaning it once held. “Literally” used to be a useful modifier that helped differentiate between real and figurative language, but now it’s merely a pre-emptive adverb for teens and tweens who don’t want their audience to think they’re lying. It’s literally an epidemic.

5. Joe Six-Pack

In recent years this term has become politician-speak for “average American,” but since when is the average American a binge drinker? Talking heads like Sarah Palin have used the name as a symbol for working-class folks who suffered from the recent economic downturn because apparently the working poor get hammered each night while struggling to feed their families. This probably wouldn’t be an issue if the name “Joe Unemployed” had a more appealing ring to it, but surely we can find a more accurate label for the middle class.

Quality public speech requires diligence from those holding the microphones. As speechwriters, lazy and misdirected rhetoric like these five words and phrases show us that our public figures’ speaking styles often lack real substance. Good speeches and real discussions are neither quick nor easy; they require genuine thought and effort.

Danny Fersh is a staff writer at Inkwell Strategies, a professional speechwriting and strategic communications firm in Washington, D.C.


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