My Outlaw Words

If I were in charge for a day, one of my first edicts would be to outlaw several words in the English language. My “Outlaw Words” serve little purpose, and to the contrary, are qualifiers that often create ambiguity and confusion. These words also allow the person using them to avoid accountability.

You may have your own “Outlaw Words,” for me, they are:

  • “Pretty,” as in, “That idea is pretty good.” Webster’s defines the adverb “pretty” as “fairly or moderately.” Sure, there is a time and place to describe something as “fairly” or “moderately;” but we tend to use “pretty” as a crutch when we do not want to take a stand. Often, something is not “pretty good,” or “pretty nice,” it is neither, but we are afraid of sharing our true feelings.
  • “Kind of,” as in, “I kind of want to do that.” Similar to “pretty,” “kind of” is a dead giveaway for ambivalence. Do we “kind of” do something? No, we either do it or we don’t do it. We feel it or we don’t feel it. We either hurt or do not hurt. You get the picture.
  • “A bit,” as in, “That’s a bit scary.” As with “kind of,” we use this one often when describing our emotions or not wanting to offend someone.
  • And my Number 1 on the Most Wanted “Outlaw Words:” “Should.” You know, “I should finish that assignment,” or “You should stop smoking.” The list of examples for this popular prop is endless. “Should” is almost as common
    in our vernacular as “the” or “and.” Taking artistic license from Bull Meechum
    (The Great Santini), “Don’t ‘should,’ just ‘do.’

I get it, life is not always black and white. There are shades of grey. Uncertainty and ambiguity exist in our lives. However effective communication includes clear statements. If something truly is ambiguous, call it out, but don’t use Outlaw Words to hedge.

The legal community has figured this out when deciding whether to use “shall” or “may.” “Shall” means “must; is or are obligated.” Whereas, “may” means “contingency; possibility or probability.” When attorneys want to hedge, they use “may;” when they want to obligate with certainty, they use “shall.” Lawyers understand the distinct difference between the two words and conscientiously use them accordingly. I suggest we do the same when we communicate in everyday life. One step in that direction would be to stop relying so heavily on the Outlaw Words. In so doing, we will communicate more sincerely and effectively. But if you slip, as I often do, don’t worry, the worst that will happen is you’ll kind of be a bit more talkative.