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Stop Butchering The English Language

Solutioning, diarizing, and zerotasking have lurched into the business lexicon -- but must go, says a former CIO. Weigh in with your own linguistic peeves.

The English language is under assault. Used properly, it's a beautiful, powerful, precise, and vivid language. But I submit that only one in 10 people (perhaps one in 20 in business technology circles) uses it properly. The result: miscommunication, misunderstanding, and ultimately, mistakes that lead to poor productivity.

As a former CIO of three financial institutions and currently a technology management consultant, I depend on proper and accurate use of English in all situations. What follows are some misuses and abuses of the language I encounter regularly, along with suggested alternatives.

My general advice: Keep words and sentences simple and specific. Use active verbs, and avoid jargon, gerunds, and passive sentence constructions. After reading my list, please weigh in with your own linguistic peeves in the Comments section below.

Avoid: Use of "architect" as a verb. As in: "We need to architect a more reliable network."

Why? One is an architect or studies architecture. Or one designs, develops, or builds something. No one architects or is architecting.

Avoid: Benchstrength. As in: "How's our benchstrength?"

Why? For one thing, it's not even a word. And are our folks bench pressing 100 pounds? 200 pounds? I realize I'm being a bit persnickety here, but it's lazy to try to use one vague term in place of a few specific words. How about: "Do we have the right people?"

Avoid: Diarizing (or its UK equivalent, diarising). As in: "I'll be diarising the results of our London meetings."

Why? Because no one will understand what you're talking about. Let's simply write in our diary instead.

Avoid: Decisioning. As in: "We will be decisioning this issue through this coming month."

Why? Because it's part of the triad of fluff, alongside "imagineering" and "solutioning." Here's the result of my own decisioning: Kill this mutilation of a word. One makes decisions or is in the process of making a decision.

Avoid: Direction of travel. As in: "Our direction of travel is to fulfill our mission statement."

Why? Because when it's applied to business affairs, this term is directionless. By auto, train? East, west? If it refers to taking steps in a particular direction, then just say so. Be specific about which direction and why.

Avoid: Going forward. As in: "We plan to spend more time on employee training going forward."

Why? If you remove "going forward" from the previous sentence, what meaning have you lost? None. Do we employ its antonym, "going backward," if we wish to revisit something? The term is at best nebulous and at worst superfluous. Be specific, as in: "Starting next week, we will initiate a new process."

Avoid: I'll circle back with you.

Why? Are you circling the wagons in anticipation of an Indian attack? Why not just say: "I'll get back to you/respond to you" by such and such a day or time?

Avoid: Learnings. As in: "We need to apply our new learnings."

Why? It's another non-word. "Learning" is a reasonable and useful word, but not so much as a noun and certainly not some plural form. How about "lesson" or "lessons" instead?

Avoid: Let's take that offline.



Why? Is that what Marconi telegraphed? Let's just say: "We'll discuss it later" or "Let's schedule a separate meeting to discuss it."

Avoid: Offboarding. As in: "We're offboarding five employees."

Why? Because the term is even worse than its twin, "onboarding." Is Gitmo offboarding prisoners after it's done waterboarding them? One presumes the word means "firing" or "laying off." Use those words instead.

Avoid: Paradigm shift.

Why? Because it has worn out its welcome. Thankfully, people use this term less than they did a decade ago. Instead, just refer to a "new/adjusted business focus" or to a "change in our business model."

Avoid: Prepone. As in: "The meeting we had planned for May 11 has been preponed to April 9."

Why? Because it's not the opposite of "postpone" and no one will know what you're talking about.

Avoid: Reach(ing) out.

Why? If anyone reaches out to me, he best take care, as I may throw up my arms to block his upper cut.

Avoid: Sense check. As in: "Let's get a sense check on that proposal."

Why? Because those who use this ambiguous term have taken leave of their senses. Does it mean "status update?" Does it mean we need a "sanity check" or we need to determine if something makes sense?

Avoid: Socialize. As in: "We need to socialize that idea before setting a formal policy."

Why? It presumably means to ask a person or group to gain consensus, agreement, or understanding on a document or idea among a number of people. The word apparently has its origin in the education profession. Socializing is fun. Gaining consensus, agreement, or understanding on a document or idea isn't fun. Don't confuse the two.

Avoid: Solutioning. As in: "We will be solutioning this problem over the next week."

Why? Because if I hear this irritating word one more time I won't be responsible for my actions. One develops or prepares solutions to problems. One seeks out solutions. But one is never, ever "solutioning." Stop making verbs or gerunds out of nouns. It's the epitome of laziness in speaking, writing, and thinking.

Avoid: Stakeholders. As in: "Let's socialize this idea with our stakeholders." (Sorry.)

Why? Because we're not part of a witch hunt. We have shareholders, sponsors, members, participants, interested parties. We can even have a stake in something. But "stakeholder" is a sloppy word.

Avoid: Zerotasking. As in: "I'll be zerotasking on my lunch hour today."

Why? Because I'm not sure what it means. I suspect you're not sure either. (It's a new one.) Does it mean there are no tasks for certain people? Or is it some bizarre adaptation of zero-based budgeting, meaning we're going to work up from zero tasks?

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User Rank: Author
11/25/2013 | 11:14:33 AM
"The Ask"
Well-played, sir! But no mention of my new pet peeve, "the ask" -- as in "Here's the ask." Or: "The ask is not that big."

I told someone this weekend that the ask is the new pivot.

In other words, I ask that "the ask" goes away. And let's not prepone that.
User Rank: Author
11/25/2013 | 12:41:57 PM
Re: "The Ask"
Most of these words and terms are just lazy bureaucrat-speak, but "prepone" is from another planet. 
Susan Fogarty
Susan Fogarty,
User Rank: Author
11/25/2013 | 12:51:04 PM
Re: "The Ask"
I couldn't agree more with these terms, as well as "the ask." And I think we should include "incentivize," especially when it is used as a euphemism for "bribe."

I had a former manager who would frequently tell me to "deprioritize" projects she assigned me but then decided were a dumb idea. I don't have fond memories of her, but I do find deprioritizing comes in handy sometimes :)
User Rank: Author
11/25/2013 | 1:31:02 PM
Re: "The Ask"
We use a lot of these to talk about bad things without being blunt. Add "issues" when we're talking about problems, and "impact" when we mean hurt. ("This could impact results." Geez, I hope so, or else why would we do it!)
User Rank: Strategist
11/25/2013 | 1:59:10 PM
Re: "The Ask"

Thank you  for your response.  My goodness: "The Ask"?  That is a new one and awful! Let's keep up the good fight.

Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
11/25/2013 | 2:34:28 PM
Moratorium on "solution" in all forms
"Solutioning" is annoying for sure, but ANY form of the word used to mean "product" makes me nuts. I am sure your highly optimized hardware with whiz-bang software on board is wonderful, and may in fact solve my problem. But please, be clear on what exactly you're selling. If it's code and silicon, say so.
IW Pick
User Rank: Strategist
11/25/2013 | 3:20:19 PM
creatifying - coming up with new words
I was zerotasking over lunch when I read this, great editorial!  But going forward I'd like to reach out to you on your decisioning.  Now that you've socialized your solutioning (removing bad words and phrases from our vocabulary) with the stakeholders (the readers of InfoWeek) (of which I (a reader) am), your direction of travel should be architecting your benchstrength.  Perhaps offboarding some tired old words will bring about a paradigm shift.  We should diarize our learnings in this magainze about why people are changifying the English language.  If you'd like to talk more, we could take this offline.  ;-)

Circling back to the subject of my post, I'm sometimes stumped when it comes to word selection.  I'd like to think that my English skills are above average, but I've noticed a few things. Sometimes the business and tech worlds needs to make up new words. It's just a fact of life. An example of a legitimate case is one that parallels the Inuit need for describing different types of snow, leading to their creating of a dozen or so words. I would agree that many phrases that people use today don't make any sense, especially if you attempted to write them down in a document.  Social-speak is often different than good writing, and the divergence is increasing. 

Anyway, I like to make fun of it at times, adding -ing, -ify/ifying, -ize/izing, etc. to words and winking or giving a sly smile.  When people hear you overusing those, they realize that it's annoyifying the heck out of them, and they are less likely to creatize new words.

Happy Thanksgiving!
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
11/25/2013 | 5:10:13 PM
Re: creatifying - coming up with new words
I applaud the sentiment of this column, though I fear it's a lost cause. Language changes, often in ways we dislike.

I still get annoyed when people use "them" or "they" as a singular non-gendered pronoun, something known as the epicene they. For example, from an AP article: "a law that prohibits commercial use of someone's name or likeness without their consent." Ugh.

Apparently, this has become accepted grammar, as has using "them" and "they" as pronouns for companies (rather than "it").
IW Pick
User Rank: Ninja
11/25/2013 | 5:38:49 PM
Re: "The Ask"
This is great. There are so many ridiculous jargon-based words out there that people think they can just spout off some fancy things and people will be amazed. 

Not so much, at least in my estimation. It might may you sound smarter until there is someone in the room who knows you are completely full of it. 
Shane M. O'Neill
Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
11/25/2013 | 6:37:27 PM
Going forward
Great list. For me, "Synergy" is the grandaddy of them all - just two words put together that unfortunately stuck. "Solution" the most overused and annoying. I've "circled back" so many times I'm dizzy. A marketing exec at Microsoft kept using the word "planful" over and over in an interview. I think planful is an actual word, but such an empty one. Why not say "prepared" or "a good planner"? A big part of a journalist's job is wiping out these terms and their ambiguous meanings and replacing them with something human and true. Maybe we can't stop business-speak, but we must work to contain it!

Let's ideate about this initiative going forward.



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