10 words & phrases I don’t want to see in your copy

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Does your writing have impact?

Or are your words overused, used incorrectly, and/or meaningless?

Consider yourself banned from using these in your writing:

  1. Groundbreaking / ground breaking. To imply something is groundbreaking means that it is a first of something (e.g., Pasteur’s groundbreaking work in biology). Be honest with yourself – is your product really groundbreaking?
  2. Synergy. A synergy occurs when two or more parties combined are greater than the sum of its parts. This word was cool…about seven years ago. Find a new word.
  3. Thinking outside of the box. This is a cliché that refuses to die in the business world. Pull the plug.
  4. For all intents and purposes. This statement means in a practical sense. It’s meaningless and wastes space. Only use words/phrases that add value to your message.
  5. Literally. Literally means word for word, or without exaggeration. Too often, people use it incorrectly (e.g., “My speech literally brought the house down…”). Use this word sparingly, and only when you really, really mean something.
  6. Leverage. We often use leverage in lieu of “use” or “benefit from” (e.g., “We leveraged the skillset of the sales team to bring in a considerable profit.”). That’s not what leverage actually means. Use it properly, or not at all.
  7. Real-time. Real-time was a cool concept about a decade ago, when the idea of anything instantaneous was mind-blowing. But in today’s connected world, real-time doesn’t hold the same power.
  8. Nice. Nice is as blah as adjectives get. Don’t use it in your writing. Ever.
  9. Free information. Since when did information cost anything?
  10. Best-of-breed. Do you host doggy pageants? Run a puppy mill? Are you talking about Seabiscuit? No? Then abandon all use of best-of-breed.

Let’s find new and more meaningful ways to communicate our thoughts.

And bring back impact to our writing.

That’s not all…check out 10 MORE words and phrases I don’t want to see in your copy (or hear in the business world)!

**What words & phrases do you love to hate? What could we do away with entirely?**


Lindsey McCaffrey is an Ottawa-based freelance web and social media copywriter, blogger and content strategist. Follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn, call me at 613-290-0239, or email me at lindsey@lindseymccaffrey.com.


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  1. …ok, regarding “literally,” I repeatedly see folks like you giving the same old advice about the word…my suggestion to all of them is to get out a recent dictionary and look up the definition. Doesn’t seem to help. I don’t think they ever do, because they repeat their advice. So for you, I’m suggesting the same thing and going a step further. For starters, try the online version of Merriam-Webster: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/literally?show=0&t=1291047583. Seriously.

  2. Bill Jasso says:

    “footprint” to describe a geographical area (“Our footprint covers two states.”).

    “baked in” used by folks outside the culinary industry. Biggest violators: finance people. “Yes, that revenue opportunity is baked in to the budget.”

  3. Thank you Lindsay for the reminders, I agree with everything except the word synergy. To feel in synergy with somebody or something feels good to me.
    As a motivational hypnotherapist practicing in the Cotswold’s , UK, I listen carefully to the words people use. 3 Common words that are disempowering and fail to motivate and inspire us or or our target audience are should, try and need.
    Should: implies something that our parents and teachers told us what we should and shouldn’t be doing.

    Try: Our subconscious recognises try as a woolly word, not a definite, “I’ll give it my best shot, but there’s no commitment”
    Need: To keep reinforcing that we need something reinforces that we are coming from a place of lack. Our basic needs are to be fed, watered, clothed and housed.
    I frequently quote from Imrat Khan “words that enlighten the soul are more precious than jewels”

    Use words and phrases in your written and spoken words that power up your subconscious and others to help maintain your motivation and leadership qualities.

  4. Elaine Spitz says:

    Thank you for saving us from ourselves with the cliches! These are some obvious ones, but still a good reminder. I love when the well-intentioned speaker uses “for all intensive purposes” instead….

  5. What if you have a client who is in the building industry who hires you to put on groundbreaking ceremonies? They really will be putting shovels and/or backhoes into the ground during or shortly after the ceremony.

  6. Great examples. How about going forward, ROI, low-hanging fruit and more at http://www.stickycommunication.ca/2010/09/words-that-must-die/

  7. Very “nice.” I used three – four of these words in a summary e-mail this morning. I now feel sheepish. That being said, I loved this post. Hope to see more similar. Just enough parts snarky + informative.

  8. The word “transparent” makes me crazy.

  9. Dear Lindsay,

    I like your list, but I have two comments. First, with regard to number 9, I find that, in many cases, companies will conduct research and then sell the study, rather than making it available for free. In that case, the information is not free.

    Secondly, I would add the word “really” to your list, although I note that you used it in number 1. “Really” is one of those overused emphasizers that has essentially lost its meaning.

    Have a great day!


    • Hi Jeannine – thank you for your comments. You’re certainly not alone regarding “free information.” Others have expressed the same sentiments.

      I guess when I think of “free information,” I picture infomercials and ads that market reclinable beds to octogenarians. E.g., “Call us for a free catalogue!”

      Thanks for your comments. Your point is very much valid!

  10. Good suggestions. I would add one and remove one. Add the word “very.” It rarely strengthens the word that follows. Remove “free information.” Much information isn’t free. That’s why lawyers, doctors, researchers, and consultants can make a living. By the way, this list was free, but it was so good I would have paid for it.

  11. Jim Nichols says:

    I agree on all but No. 9. You ask: “Since when does information cost money?” Since cavemen figured out people will pay for it, I’d guess. In the Information Age, a huge part of our global economy hinges on the willingness of people to pay for information, and we do so almost constantly: In our schooling, books, newspapers, Internet-access fees, smart-phone subscriptions, cable-TV bills, subscriber-only websites, etc. etc. Those of us in the communications business are all grateful that clients will pay for the information and wisdom that we sell. Right?

  12. Your lead — “Does your writing have impact?” — reminds me of another word I hate to see in copy: impact (as a verb).

  13. I also delete as many “thats” as possible.

  14. …and “as well as” instead of “and.”

  15. I have grown to hate “engage” or engaging used for communication…

  16. Solid list, but I take exception to ‘free information.’ The New York Times website charges for content after an article turns a day old. As do other sites.

  17. I can’t stand the use of “in order to.” It’s totally a waste of words.

  18. Nice post, Lindsey. One phrase which makes me cringe when *I* use it is “I had a conversation with…”. Why I and others don’t just say “I spoke to…” I suppose is a byproduct of a wordy society. Hoping to wean myself off that habit.

    • Yes, we’re a wordy society. But language is full of subtleties, and “had a conversation with” connotes something different than “spoke to”. It suggests something more interactive, perhaps more democratic. I’m all for avoiding worn-out clichés, but paring everything back to the most stripped-down language can cause it to lose some of its meaning and colour. Which is a shame.

      • If we strip down all of our copy, our exact meaning which requires linguistic subtleties, as well as our personal writing style and ability to hold the readers’ interest (by not using the same word twice in the same paragraph, for example) are lost.

  19. You ask, “Since when does information cost anything?” It does if you subscribe to a newspaper, magazine, exclusive reports, etc. As a rule, common information costs nothing. Exclusive information is often sold at a premium.

    Therefore, I suggest “free information” has some validity. Also, the phrase includes “free,” considered my many in DM as the most powerful word in marketing.

  20. Lindsey, great article. So much in writing can be lost by the use of unnecessary and meaningless words. I actually put together a piece last month focusing on 100 PR Buzzwords that need to go six feet under which can be a nice addition to your list. http://bit.ly/100PRBuzzwords

  21. LOL: Just wrote “real time” in my answer to you on LinkedIn :-)

  22. I have increasinly come to dislike the term “going forward”.

  23. I hate it when people use the word “organic”, as in: “the concept for this campaign evolved organically from…blah blah…”

    Unless you’re actually talking about organic agriculture (absence of chemicals), or science, you’re just using it to try and sound profound.

    I also hate the word utilize. It’s just another example of adding a ridiculous suffix to the end of a perfectly good word–USE works just fine.

  24. Utilize. I’d be a happy girl to never read that word again.

    Sure, it has a slightly more focused meaning than use. But it’s always struck me as a weak attempt to sound more formal or important.

  25. The most overused word in tv interviews is “absolutely.” The bad part is that it is a conversation stopper, not a starter.

    The possibilities are VIRTUALLY limitless.
    Really? When you think about it, every word after “virtually” becomes a lie!

  27. Nice! Thanks for posting this info real-time. For all intents and purposes this type of thinking outside the box, free information will allow me to leverage the synergy of all my writing. This is literally groundbreaking, best-of-breed help!

  28. Regarding the dictionary definition of “literally” — dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. That means they describe modern usage, not recommend or sanction it. If you want to use words *well* you do not depend on a dictionary’s guidance, you rely on a style guide or language expert. Otherwise you might end up with “bootilicious” in your copy.

  29. I like this list. Very “Innovative”. No wait, forget I said that!

  30. I agree that jargon has no place in a real attempt to communicate but I disagree on the example “real-time” because I don’t think the argument has been won yet. Many organisations still fail to respond to customers using social media in real time and therefore the concept and the language used to describe it is still very much alive. Another phrase is “always-on world” which I find ugly and clumsy, but I use it because we need to talk a lot more about how we operate in such a place.

  31. Really good list. One of my pet hates in spoken communication is: “Obviously”. It’s used to launch so many presentations, pitches, statements, etc. If it’s that obvious, why are you telling me about it? I understand the psychological reasons for its use i.e. “let’s all agree that this starting point is a given” – an attempt to create instant consensus. It automatically alienates anyone who doesn’t feel that the point is actually obvious.

    Oooh, thanks for the opportunity for a quick rant in the morning!

  32. I think the words “insanely” and “crazy” have gone the way of “literally.” These words are overused and used incorrectly. Recently I stayed at a hotel in which the mattress I was to be sleeping on was described as “insanely comfortable” in one of the hotel’s ads. Last I checked, I just wanted to go to sleep not go the asylum.

  33. Partnering – partner is a noun
    “at the end of the day…” – sometimes solutions take longer than sundown
    gravitas – how does one measure it?
    global warming – same as “gravitas”

  34. Too many like “turnkey” and “award-winning” to name, agree with @Eric on “engage” and @Barb for “ROI” so many others. It’s not that these terms don’t have their place, but they’ve become overused, crutches. I like Despair’s take on Synergy, http://despair.com/synergy.html, and Un-Suckit for lots of the business jargon; their “WOW factor” is one of my faves http://unsuck-it.com/wow-factor/ FWIW.

    • lindseymccaffrey says:

      Yikes. I use “award-winning” to describe myself in my bio! But perhaps it’s okay because it’s true? :)

  35. “Actually” and “Truthfully”: If you say this, I don’t believe anything else you say.
    “I think”: Say WHAT you think, not THAT you thought it.
    “Exactly”: Unlikely.
    “You guys”: Why not “you,” especially when you are talking to my wife?
    “Best practice”: Overused, unsubstantiated.
    “Give back”: Unless you give back that which you were given, just “give.”

  36. “Repurpose”: Most often, it’s “reused.”

  37. Excellent list. This might be the best list of its kind.
    It may have set a “new” record for lists…

  38. Jessica S. Novak says:

    Who else cringes hearing and reading about “Best Practices?”

    I agree with Larry – overused.

    Also annoyed when “news” is used/meant to broadcast the doing of a job instead of it being REAL news about the person or organization.

  39. Adam Segal-Isaacson says:

    Personally, I despise the use of impact as a verb outside of dentistry and astronomy. Use affect.
    Overall the tendency to create verbs out of nouns is a bad business. As Bill Watterson so aptly put it: Verbing weirds language. Another prescription that is avoided in a lot of business writing, to the detriment of communication, is the old Strunk and White advice: Write tight. Or as a teacher of mine once put it: Verbosity obfuscates.

    • lindseymccaffrey says:

      Love your response. I’ll have to remember that “verbing weirds language.” That’s the best bit of advice I’ve heard in a long time!

  40. Bev Pausch says:

    Excellent list and additions. The phrase “at the end of the day” really bothers me.

  41. Catherine Riggins says:

    I hate ‘end to end solutions’ and ‘Crunchy’and let’s not forget ROBUST!!! even though I use them all of the time…

  42. Jaclynna Williams says:

    I could do without “interface” when talking about people.

    I also hate “irregardless”. It’s not a word. The correct term is “regardless”.

    Thanks for getting us thinking!

  43. “Going forward, it’s invaluable that we can all come to the table, utilize the feedback to create a synergy that at the end of the day, virtually proves we are all on the same page.”

    What’s the old joke? “Your verbosity is none to copious for my comprehension.”

    Buzzwords and phases are for people who want to sound impressive because what they are saying is not. But, they always give me a good chuckle.

    Thank you Lindsey!

  44. It is heartwarming to find so many people who object to the mangling of the English language. i thought it was just me being an old fogy!

    My personal favourites are “very unique” (either it is unique or it isn’t) and “reaching out” rather than contacting.

    Also why are contracts now “inked” rather than signed (people making their mark I suppose), businesses “shuttered” rather than closed and people “tapped” rather than hired?

    Thank you for the opportunity to vent!

  45. Mark Triggs says:

    Wow, what a debate you’ve sparked!
    To add my own bête noire, “meet with”. Is it too much to expect us to simply meet someone these days?

  46. Thanks for the link to my article about “literally” :) I got such a kick out of reading the comments – great discussion. I like the list you’ve got here!

  47. Synergy was actually cool about **25 years** ago!

    I was hoping when you touched on “information” that you would also include “data”; people want it to sound like really important information. Whatever. If you use it, just make sure that the verb that accompanies it is in the plural form.

    And as a former scientist, where we take numbers and data almost personally, I would also like to add “decimate.” “Decimate” means to destroy one-tenth of something, not obliterate it.

    Another phrase borrowed from scientists that is often used in business is “symbiotic,” as in “We have a symbiotic relationship with our clients.” Did you know that predator-prey is one form of symbiotic relationship?

    Great piece, thanks!

  48. Great list, great comments. Many nauseating examples, but “at the end of the day” seems to be the most recent favorite of those with nothing to say.

  49. sexy – I worked at a company that used this adjective for anything new (and not so new). Not only was it inapporpriate and unprofessional – it was inaccurate! We were not selling negligees. The company was hi-tech in nature.

  50. I wanted to add ‘impactful’ but you beat me to it! =D

  51. This reminds me of a game I sometimes played to pass the time at conferences during my time in the corporate world: http://elsmar.com/level2/Bingo.html

  52. Thank you, I have recently been searching for information about this topic for ages and yours is the best I have discovered so far.

  53. lindseymccaffrey says:

    I appreciate the accolades. Well, it’s still technically a new article – it’s only been online for about three months. Give it a bit more time – I think you’ll see it rise. It’s certainly made its way around the world a few times in such a short timeframe.

  54. David McIntyre says:

    OK, The bandwagon stops here. (Yes, I used the word “bandwagon”). I get what everyone is saying and I agree that some words that are used in business discussion are overused and inappropriate given the context of the discussion. I like the comments regarding the words “leverage”, “literally” and “obviously”. I do find these words to be used disproportionately. I would also add the word “vetted” to your list.

    Words can move a conversation and bring concepts/models to life. They can tune us in to the emotional charge and benefits associated with our theme. Words can be purposeful in cementing the benefits of proposals by generating powerful images. But…they can also distract the audience back to the bare words and away from the message if not used properly. As I was reading the comments, I thought that some of the suggestions were valid, but others were not. We need to choose our words carefully and be creative/innovative with our choices. We have to know our audience, be sincere in our message and hide well our hidden agenda or secondary motives. If we are sincere, our audience won’t get hung up so superficially if you say you are a “good team player”, as though these words were an inappropriate accessory or a bad tie or set of earrings. My recommendation is not to ban words,or get hung up on them, but to focus on sincere messages.

  55. I will post a link to this page on my blog.

  56. great post, thanks for sharing

  57. Well. What words/phrases seem to be must-haves then? Maybe the context is very important.

    In the end, probably, Clarity, Relevance and Brevity count most. And an emotional connector would help too.

    • Let’s add clear, concise and relevant. We crave authenticity and original thought with what we hear and read. Jargons, cliches and platitudes are used to get to the point of what we are saying but instead it makes the listener gloss over what is really being said. That is, if anything is really being said at all.
      Great post! Now thinking of changing my business name, Outside-the-Box Graphics to my own name. That cliche really did capture what I bring to the table, but perhaps using my own name is more authentic. Thoughts?

  58. Hi Lindsay,

    Thank you for your list of ten words. Happily I never use any of those words anyway. Thanks for supporting my natural sensibility.

  59. I was surprised you didn’t include “reticent,” which is frequently used these days to mean “reluctant.”

  60. Include “simplistic”; it sounds like a fancy word for simple or sort-of-simple, but it isn’t.

    Include “enormity”; it’s not a synonym for immensity.


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  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Brigitte Allard, Vicki. Vicki said: 10 words and phrases you may not want to use in your copy http://ow.ly/3gFhr [...]

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  4. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Iris Dias. Iris Dias said: Love this list. I REALLY hate: Synergy (gag me with a spoon) & Nice (could a worse compliment be given?) http://ow.ly/3sGC0 #pr #writing [...]

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