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IT Leadership // IT Strategy
11:00 AM
Bennett Quillen
Bennett Quillen

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: Ninja
5/4/2016 | 12:53:22 PM
Re: Other bad terms
At my organization we just upgraded to Citrix XenDesktop from Citrix XenDesktop.  The "elevator language" we have been told to use is to call the new environment "nimble."  

A. I can't help but think of the nursery rhyme, "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick..." which was probably the last time I ever used that word.  For anything.

B. Can software even be nimble?  Isn't that an adjective reserved for people only?

Anyway, although I get the point, I haven't been able to say it with a straight face.  
User Rank: Apprentice
5/4/2016 | 11:56:19 AM
Re: Other bad terms
moarsauce123: It's nice to see your post in these fora.  I had some Latin beaten into me as a schoolboy.
Kristin Burnham
Kristin Burnham,
User Rank: Author
12/3/2013 | 8:46:41 PM
Best of breed
Mine: Best of breed. Instantly reminds me of dog shows. Of course you think your company thinks its product is best of breed. Who'd strive for anything less?
Tony A
Tony A,
User Rank: Moderator
12/2/2013 | 1:26:23 PM
Following Customers
All this attention to "What's the ask?", when the equally venerable abdication of linguistic responsibility, "What's the lift?", hardly gets a mention!

But why limit your ire to technology and the conference room? How about this protocol, heard in numerous establishments lately" "May I take the following customer?" This assinine effort to make checkout clerks and bank tellers sound like they have a fine grasp of the English language actually makes them sound more ignorant than if they used the right word, "next", which most of them would normally do. "May I take the following customer" should be followed by a colon and the name of a customer; unless, of course, the store only has two customers, one of whom is leading the other, and they for some reason want to serve the one who is following.


User Rank: Strategist
11/30/2013 | 10:40:54 PM
And the Survey Says...
This is hilarious.. In a good way. I agree with Thomas [Claburn], "..Language changes, often in ways we dislike".

Pet Peeve: The public use of terms that I am forced to accept as standard or the norm. #1 should be

Facebooking: The act of putting off everything, while chatting or posting on Faceboook; Talking to people on Facebook. Example: He couldn't finish the vendor reports because he was Facebooking on his iPhone.

I honestly think this will be in the dictionary as a verb in 2014. And I will have to accept it. Just as I had to accept my friends over usage of hashtags on Facebook before Facebook incorporated the usage of hashtags. Example: #Don't #Use #The #Hashtag #Symbol #On #Every #Word

Trying to get them to stop.. #EpicFail
User Rank: Apprentice
11/30/2013 | 2:18:19 AM
It is about time
Why stop there, we need to get people who know the language to help expunge shortcut English starting with commercials. 

You don't buy Chevy you buy a Chevy, our prices won't be beaten, NOT beat.

This poor usage is now so commonplace it some people believe it is proper English.

I dare people to read anything by Winston Churchill and not notice an improvement in their speech.
User Rank: Apprentice
11/29/2013 | 6:25:13 PM
Speak English For Heaven's Sake!!!
Here, Here! It's about time this argument was raised, and repeated again and again—seems there are still adherents, even in response to this article. Remember the push to make Jive slang a part of the English language about 40 years ago, or the more recent attempt about 7 years ago to add much from the Ebonics lexicon to the English language. Please...they were very serious about it! And I'm just as serious about how immature and a waste of time that would be!

Heck, I even remember when my one-year younger brother and I, at the ages of four and five, babbled baby talk at each other for hours, merely bonding and/or practicing communication like the adults around us that we tried to emulate. Now, should there be a six year old version of language that we endlessly attempt to decipher, give generic meaning to and add to the English language?

While this isn't really communicating or the same thing as the slang that develops generationally, I don't think we need to! Taken to the extreme, why should I learn French, Russian, Chinese or most common languages of the world to be able to communicate in their native tongue with people in America? (Incidentally for the low-information crowds in America, English is the 'language of the world'!)

What IS true is that the English language will always undergo additions through popular derivations, and hopefully with much forethought and research on the part of established encyclopedic / dictionary publishers—and kept to a sensible minimum. Society can't long endure having 5,000 new dictionary entries released every year before that society raises a collective raised eyebrow and ignores yet another entry into the potpourri of nonsense.

Just as true is the communicative norms that develop within various industries throughout our society, addressing the ever-changing landscape of thought, research and innovation. However, the development of terms in these industries are best kept within the context of the industry they 'grow up' in. For example, how often during the day do you use the phrase, "Boy, Mildred, you're going to give me a myocardial infarction if you keep pestering me!"

Alas, reasonable people will continue to have to correct the less well-informed among us. These days it is primarily high school graduates and drop-outs, and those who tune out of society due to their own shortcomings (disabled) or laziness (low information threshold). To me, the practice and use of the English language, with its rich assortment of evocative, colorful and weighty words and phrases, is as much a joy to use as listening to a good music recording!

Back in the good ole' days of vinyl records, we did not want to get up from our comfy seat and have to move the needle over a deep scratch to keep the record from repeatedly skipping back one track, or have to play it back more than once so that we could better understand the melody being conveyed by a worn-out, popping and scratchy soundtrack—there's enough noise in communication these days!

So, being aware of where an accent originated from, listening attentively to word meaning in slang usage and technical jargon, and asking for clarification will always be with us. However, most high-school graduates and newcomers to this country MUST get in tune with the culture of America and our industrial, societal norms before they start asking America to tune into their baby-talk!
User Rank: Apprentice
11/29/2013 | 2:49:49 PM
The wackiness continues
After over 10 years, the Web Economy BS Maker maker still has a surprisingly current feel to it.

Still makes me laugh, especially when thinking about the proposals I submitted that had terms directly from this thing, for the fun factor. Never got called on it either, which is arguably the funniest part. Of course we know that nobody reads that stuff anyway. One extra parge proporsal I submitted got sign-off by several C's and managers and was put in the pipe. The rollback plan was "Grab your ankles". Nobody caught that either... ROFL!
User Rank: Ninja
11/29/2013 | 10:33:08 AM
Other bad terms
Dollarizing - as in "We need to dollarize the expense" or "The investment needs to dollarize". Why? There are way better terms for this such as "set a price", "get a return on investment", "estimate or determine cost". And the nice thing is they are understood in countries that use any currency unit.

Customer Relationship Management - Why? You have relations with customers, you do not manage relations. Any relation requires two parties that have interests and ideally come to a mutual agreement on how to nurture the relationship. That isn't something that can be managed.

"Definately" - Why? Because it is spelled wrong! The word is "definitely" and anyone who spend some time learning English knows that English is not a phonetic language. In general, many people spent many hours to craft spell checkers. Use them!

Agile - as in "We have to be more agile!" - Why? Nobody really knows what the term "agile" means and thus interprets it diffierently. Typically, it is the unspoken agreement to stop doing what is important, but annoying. This is the straight path into anarchy. By calling it "agile" it suggests that it is perfectly fine if everything is now utterly dysfunctional.

Preplan - Why? Planning implies that it is done before something else. Further, "preplan" implies that there is a "postplan" as in coming up with a plan after finishing the task. Sadly, that does happen!

Variable data - Why? Data is the plural of datum and means "something given" and implies that it is static, unmovable, not subject to change. There is nothing variable about data and by the way, the plural is not "datas". This clearly shows that it was a mistake to stop teaching Latin in schools.
User Rank: Apprentice
11/29/2013 | 10:12:39 AM
Re: "On-Premise" Instead of "On-Premises"
All of these terms are classic and tend to be used by Dilbert's manager. However, "benchstrength" has nothing to do with bench pressing. It's actually two words, referring to the number of qualified players who are "sitting on the bench" in the dugout or at courtside, ready to relieve an injured or faltering player.
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