Write What You Mean: Words Matter

Several days ago, while listening to a discussion on the radio about the future of education system, I caught a tidbit that made me shudder.  Oddly, it had nothing to do with how programs are designed, the abysmal math scores in the US, or budget cuts.  No, it was the repeated use of the word “theses” when talking about a singular concept.  This was coming from the host repeatedly and was broadcast nationwide.  First of all, the word “thesis” has definition beyond a vague idea.  A thesis is:

  1. A proposition that is maintained by argument.
  2. A dissertation advancing an original point of view as a result of research, especially as a requirement for an academic degree.
  3. A hypothetical proposition, especially one put forth without proof.

As it was used in the context of the discussion, however, it was simply an indeterminate statement lacking a cohesive structure or point.  I suppose that if we choose to apply any sense of definition loosely, then the third definition might make sense, but I digress.  The more significant point that struck me was the use, or misuse, of the word in its plural form.  Considering that both host and guest made this same mistake repeatedly, it got me thinking that perhaps the problems in the system of education, and indeed communication as a whole, is more profound than philosophical disagreements over classroom size or how to teach fractions.

On this surface it sounds like I am playing at language police, that I am subscribing to and promoting a notion of uniform proscriptive grammar but I am not. I am a firm believer in the regional nature of word use and sentence structure.  I have even come to accept, though it pains me tremendously, the use of the word “invite” (a verb) to signify an “invitation” (a noun).  No, the point is that the misuse of words ultimately makes us look stupid, even as we twist words or use phrases we have heard in passing to sound smart. Ideas don’t “jive,” they “jibe.”  Concept testing is rarely about “flushing things out” — if we’re “flushing” rather than “fleshing,” then we probably have a significant problem. This isn’t simply a matter of nitpicking, it’s a matter of how we conduct business and how our clients view us.  Whether written or spoken, the misuse of a word or phrase can diminish our message to the point of irrelevance.

Take for example the use of the phrase “table stakes.” A friend of mine had used this phrase in a project bid but had written “table steaks.” He had also used the word “utilize” repeatedly even though he meant “use.” Unfortunately, he lost the bid and I can’t help but think that it was tied in part to the misuse of the written word.  Again, this isn’t a matter of being overly critical, it’s a matter of perceptions.  I once had a French business associate tell me point blank that a vendor had lost a job because he wrote “coup de gras” (stroke of fat) in an RFP response when he meant to write “coup de grâce.”  It wasn’t that the intended message had somehow been lost or that the professional merit of the vendor was substandard, it was that the vendor came across as sloppy.  And therein lies the problem.

We are bidding on or presenting work that serves a specific business need when we respond to an RFP, giving a presentation of findings, etc.  We are also responding to the unspoken need of the person/persons commissioning the work to look smart and valuable to the company. If we look sloppy or stupid, they look sloppy or stupid.  The point at which a colleague tunes out because he or she sees a glaring error is the point at which the work we do loses any relevance, whether it is a research report, a strategy session or a piece of creative work. We wouldn’t put an engineering diagram in front of a client if the math behind it was wrong. We wouldn’t present a fiscal assessment if we hadn’t bothered to check the calculations.  They same should be true for what we say and write.

So the English teacher in me has a plea for us all: think a little bit before starting writing things.  Put the document in front of a fresh set of eyes or give the presentation to an unbiased set of ears.  Be willing to take critiques and corrections for what they are, not as pettiness on the part of the reviewer.  Something as simple as a single word can make the difference between success and failure.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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  1. My dad was a good teacher in the art of saying what you mean. If we said something other than what we meant to say, he would act as though we meant what we said even though he usually knew what we had intended to say. This encouraged us to give careful thought to what our speech meant instead of just speaking and hoping for it to get the message across.

  2. Agreed. I won’t hire an ethnographer or recruiter who refers to multiple visits within a single ethnographic study as “ethnos.” There is ONE ethnography. We may conduct multiple visits and use multiple methods, but we do NOT do “15 ethnos on x.” I’ve even heard some very accomplished ethnographers using the term incorrectly, just because their clients all do it. Sorry. It’s simply wrong. Words matter.

  3. This is a wonderful post! Thanks for spreading the encouragement to use language correctly.

    “Utilize” might be my number one hated word. Thanks so much for highlighting that one. I think nine times out of ten, people use it to sound smart, when all it really does is make it look like people are using it to try to sound smart.

  4. I will argue that turning a verb into a noun, and back again, is very common, and accepted, in the English language. We take a break, make a call, go for a walk, etc. The explosion of the digital age will just bring more of it. How use the word text, for example, when referring to the act in the past. “I just texted many texts”…the spell-check has informed me it is not a word, yet it is heard in common speech. The problem seems to be a corruption of the oral tradition. If people would start occasionally READING books, that are written in a well-executed proscriptive grammar, then our spoken language would improve. It is the media that allows for such sloppiness of language execution, and now no one READS anymore, so how can people KNOW that what they are hearing is wrong. We all just need to clean up our acts, and also not be afraid to tell someone that an “expresso” is a very fast cup of coffee, and not an Italian beverage.

  5. Thanks Gavin. I may want to edit your post myself (that’s the editor in me), but I agree with your premise and hope others will. However, from what I’ve seen in other discussions similar to this one, there is a general acceptance among research buyers as well as sellers that anything goes as long as “the average person” will “get it.” Happy New Year!

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