Do these vague words muddle your emails?

Murky deadlines, pronouns with ambiguous antecedents, and exhortations to ‘work your magic’ can baffle colleagues and clients, while risking that you don’t get precisely what you need.

The email in my inbox was short but not quite to the point, as it turns out: “Yes, that’s right.”

I had asked two questions; which one was “right”?

We’ve all been in this situation, either as the recipient squinting at the screen in confusion or as the sender thinking the meaning is clear as day. Confusing exchanges not only are frustrating when they happen frequently, but also turn a “convenient” method of communication into a waste of time.

You might as well have picked up the phone. How archaic.

If you’re frequently asked to clarify your emails, a handful of phrases is likely to blame. Here are common words to avoid in emails. Use them with caution—or, better still, expunge them from your vocabulary—and you’ll save time and energy in trying to get your point across.

First and foremost, pronouns:

  • He, she, they
  • Him, her, them
  • It
  • These, those
  • That, this

The principal rule of all communication is to be as specific as possible. You’re not a mind reader, and neither is your recipient. Pronouns have a time and a place, and your writing would look ridiculous without them. However, to avoid confusion, make sure you’ve clearly identified the pronoun’s antecedent—the noun that the pronoun is replacing.

For example: “Bill would like those delivered to Jake ASAP. He needs to see the reports, too.” Who needs to see the reports, Bill or Jake? It’s a mystery.

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Next, vague deadlines:

  • ASAP
  • Urgent
  • Soon
  • Quickly
  • STAT
  • Pronto
  • Whenever you get a chance
  • When you have a moment

Each of these vague timeframes implies that a deadline exists, but we’re not privy to that exact deadline. What if “ASAP” means that an article is needed within a few hours, but I take it to mean I can have it done by tomorrow? If I should drop what I’m doing and work on your urgent project at this very moment, say so. Otherwise, I will use my own judgment to work it into my schedule behind higher-priority items. Give specific dates and times, such as “by 5 p.m. on Monday the 12th,” in order to leave no room for interpretation.

Now for some overused words:

  • Really
  • Literally
  • Quite
  • A bit
  • Perhaps
  • Somewhat
  • Pretty much
  • Basically
  • Definitely

If you quite literally pepper these really overused adverbs and adjectives throughout pretty much all your emails, basically your audience will perhaps be somewhat unable to understand what you’re definitely trying to say.

Whew. Makes you want to reach through the screen and give the writer a good shake, doesn’t it? Out with it already.

Don’t fluff up your writing with these overused qualifiers, especially if the email already threatens to be a long one. Short, precise sentences are easier to understand.

Finally, a personal pet peeve, vague expectations:

  • Work your magic
  • Do your best
  • Make it better
  • Fix it
  • Do it right

Better how? What needs fixing? What does “right” look like?

When I started freelancing, one of my first clients sent me short articles and essays to proof and edit. So my job consisted of rewriting awkward phrases and correcting verb tenses. Sometimes I had to rewrite the entire article line by line to make it read correctly. After I’d worked with this client for a while, the instructions sent with each document became increasingly vague, until one day the email simply said “Work your magic.”

I was flattered. Me? Magical? Who knew editing was a superpower. I opened the attachment and read through a very well-written piece. The vocabulary was great, and the awkward phrases were few and far between. From my perspective, all that was needed was some proofreading and light editing. I sent the document back with Track Changes enabled as usual.

The reply landed in my inbox with unusual speed. “Is that it? We’re expecting more than that. Please edit rather than proofread.”

I sent back an apology and explained why I’d made so few changes and put the onus back on myself, hoping the client would take the hint and send clearer instructions in the future: “I’ll be sure to ask for clarification next time if the instructions aren’t clear.”

The “hope they’ll take the hint” approach is not helpful in any communication, and I don’t recommend it. If you need your client, manager or co-worker to do something differently in the future, be direct. Be specific. For example, it’s not just a “report”-it’s “the Google Adwords report for Joe’s Cabinet Company, campaign B, from 6/1/15 to 7/1/15.” Open lines of communication are important so everyone knows what is expected.

As another example, mass emails require you to explicitly name the people from whom you need a response or who must take action. Assigning tasks to people by name ensures they will get done. Otherwise, you risk having everyone assume that someone else is taking care of it.

What words or phrases would you add to this list? Have you ever used a phrase that caused a communication mishap? Please let me know in the comments section.

If you know someone who could benefit from this article, please share it. If vague emails are a chronic condition in your workplace, add a link to your signature as a useful reminder.

A version of this article originally appeared on Business 2 Community.

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