by Ken Smith 80
merican English is in a bad way.
It didn’t get sick overnight. It probably isn’t going
to get better any time soon. I was tired, however, of hearing phrases
such as, “save as much as 50 percent or more,” and of
reading sentences such as, “He’s spent his career counterintuiting
convention.” I was tired of yelling at my television and of
pounding my fist into the dashboard of my car. Anger is never satisfying.
So I thought that if I could write a little book, fill it with examples
of idiomatic nonsense that everyone could recognize and relate to—and
laugh at—then maybe that would help.
So I wrote Junk English.
I am not a grammarian or a linguist or a lexicographer. I’m
just a writer. I make plenty of Junk English mistakes myself. For
example, in the introduction to the book I describe it as “a
broad overview of an encyclopedic subject.”
“Broad overview” is an example of what I label—about
sixty pages later—a Parasitic Intensifier. It is a byproduct
of our age of hype. Overview, a word that once was strong enough
on its own, nowadays doesn’t seem strong at all. So we attach
a parasite—broad—to it, which further sucks the vigor
out of overview and makes us have to use two words to say what
we used to be able to say with one.
I read that introduction a dozen times before it went to the printer,
and I didn’t see the mistake. If I missed that, you can guess
that I have a hard time discussing appositive phrases or improper
antecedents, or explaining the difference between a gerund and
Still, the beauty—if one can call it that—of Junk English
is that one does not need a Ph.D. in English to recognize it, and
to recognize that it is bad.
I knew that Junk English would be a small book and that it would
only have room for the worst examples. I had to find out what those
were. So for six months I lost myself in newspaper circulars, e-mail
spam, the advertising inserts in my phone bill. I watched shopping
channels and politicians. I listened to talk radio and business executives.
I had to pay attention. That was painful, as you can imagine.
In the end, patterns became clear. Certain words in the English
lexicon are abused continually: factor, focus, function, formulate,
quality, value. Other abuses naturally aggregate into categories.
I gave many of these unusual titles—not typically found in
books about language—in the hope that they would be memorable.
Here are several examples:
These phrases are anchored at the end by abstract nouns. They replace
simple words, and their only effect is to lengthen whatever it
is that we’re trying to express. Once recognized, they reveal
their bulk readily.
the thought process = thinking
in a positive fashion = approvingly
the very near future = soon
in a working mode = working
on a daily
basis = daily
This vast category exists because we want to impress others, and
because some of us mistakenly feel that the way to accomplish this
is to say ordinary things in extraordinary ways.
expeditiously = fast
specificities = details
draconian = harsh
marginalize = weaken
conceptualization = idea
Some words are powerful because few things meet their standards.
Cheapened Words were once that way, but are no more. They have been
weakened by overuse and by being attached to unworthy subjects. When
every executive is a visionary and every product is revolutionary
or innovative, the words lose their punch. Shocking, unique, crisis,
hero and classic no longer impress. Even meaningful has been so overused
that it no longer has much meaning.
The use of re-verbs is popular in organizations where it is dangerous
to think or invent, but permissible to rethink or reinvent.
No grammatical apology can excuse abominations. Someone, somewhere,
thought that he or she could awe others if he or she substituted
a newly invented word for one that already existed. Many of us now
use these neologisms ourselves.
mentee = trainee
impactful = effective
exceedance = excess
efforting = attempting
mindshare = attention
Add-A-Word and Add-A-Syllable
Why use just one word when you can use two or three? Why use two
syllables when you can use four or five? Filling space without cause
may dazzle some, but it is best to expand your thoughts with insight,
not extra letters.
subject matter expert = expert
business entity = business
time frame = time
weather conditions = weather
orientate = orient
comfortability = comfort
competency = competence
We live in a Golden Age of euphemisms, and that is not good. Euphemisms
are used principally to disguise. The popularity of these gimmicks
suggests that there are many things in our world with which we are
document retention policy = document shredding policy
statements = guesses
longer hours = more hours
practices = lying, fraud
information management = censorship
head count = firing people
negative growth = decline, loss
offer = junk mail
corporate underwriter = advertiser
office space = cubicle
social unrest = rioting
gaming = gambling
investigational medication = experimental drug
not optimal =
Mongrels are formed by a clumsy crunching together of two words,
making one. A few, such as dramady, attempt to describe new things,
but most merely camouflage old things that are unsavory.
advertorial = advertisement
guesstimate = guess
infomercial = commercial
shoppertainment = selling
We all have a weakness for clichés. While their meaning
is clear, they are poor substitutes for careful expression. If
people to communicate with us thoughtfully, we should extend to
them the same courtesy.
a level playing field = fairness
a no-brainer = obvious
hit the nail
right on the head = is correct
on the same page = agree
box = differently
pushing the envelope = daring
share = most
the whole nine yards = everything
wake-up call = warning
These space-wasters add no information or shade of meaning beyond
that of a single word. They are fun to spot—at least until
we realize how often we are guilty of using them.
Adjectives and adverbs can inconspicuously reduce the promise of
Invisible Diminishers are popular with advertising
copywriters, who drop them in front of assertions such as perfect
and foolproof that otherwise could not be used.
the most overall
interior room in its class
Adults often make fun of teenage lingo because it favors style over
precision. We would laugh less if we looked objectively at our own
impact = affect
brainstorm = think
de-install = remove
fiber media =
metric[s] = standard, guideline
transparency = clarity, openness
Nouns As Verbs
There will always be new inventions, conditions and events that
need new nouns to describe them. New actions, however, are rare,
is little need for new verbs. You wouldn’t know that from
the many new verbs in our language that once were exclusively nouns.
author = write
broker = make, arrange
document = demonstrate, support,
leverage = use
mandate = require
mentor = train
transition = change, move
warehouse = store
The linguistic mendacity of Warfare English—a special category
of euphemistic language—is used by politicians to shield
us from the truth of war. There are, sadly, many examples.
detainee = prisoner
enclosure = cell
incident, incursion, interdiction
= attack, assault
military action, military intervention = war, attack,
a military solution = war
conflict = war
degrade = bomb
damage = wounded or dead civilians
mop-up operation = shooting
Junk English jewels
Certain words are so much a part of Junk English that they merit
their own entry. Two examples:
This is the most overused, unnecessary word in contemporary American
English. Writers should strike it out whenever they use it; speakers
should catch themselves before they say it and say something else.
In most instances it can simply be eliminated, in others it can
be replaced by standard English words—ready, prepared,
alert, vigilant, assertive, aggressive, decisive, authoritative,
done so with greater clarity of expression.
This word is now a synonym for problem and an example of good intentions
gone bad. At first it was used out of politeness, to spare a person’s
feelings. Fat people had weight issues. Couples who threw cookware
at each other had relationship issues. But the word has of late been
embraced by persons and organizations whose goal is not to spare
our feelings, but to evade responsibility. Thus the word problem
has vanished from the English lexicon. Does smoking kill people?
That’s a problem—but it’s called a serious
health issue. Did we miss important clues before the attacks of September
11? That’s a problem—but it’s called a significant
security issue. Fear not, these issues will be addressed—unlike
problems, which would have to be solved.
The abuse of a word like issue is a good example of how Junk English
is not really about grammar, but about human frailty.
Some people will always be lazy or sloppy in their use of language;
Samuel Johnson complained about it over 200 years ago. And the
deliberate abuse of language is as old as politics and business
and war. Citing
precedent, however, is no excuse, particularly if that precedent
is bad—and Junk English is certainly bad. So why do we tolerate
clumsiness and humbug? Why do we incorporate it into our language?
Words can sometimes be magical. They can make the unimpressive
seem important, and that can be useful. Two of the most common
assignments encountered by adults, for example, are résumés
and performance reviews. Who gets rewarded? The person who states
the facts, simply and plainly? Or the person who inflates the facts
with hot air?
When everyone else stretches his or her language, we stretch ours.
As a consequence, we’ve become so familiar with bulked-up English
that we use it automatically, even when we’re not trying
to impress anyone. We say and write utilize instead of use, medication instead of medicine, dialogue instead of discussion. Our use of
language is increasing; it has to. The more excessive language
becomes, the more excessive it must become to have the same effect.
Conversely, Junk English is also the language of anesthesia. Many
people believe that the safest thing to say is nothing at all, and
that fuzzy abstractions and broad phrasing can hide a lack of substance
and lull an audience into indifference.
Here’s an example: “Company XYZ is determined to promote
constant attention on current procedures of transacting business
focusing emphasis on innovative ways to better, if not supercede,
the expectations of quality.”
When I began writing Junk English I tried to break down sentences
like this into plain language, but I couldn’t. I was left
with nothing but air. The sentence doesn’t say anything false.
It doesn’t say anything at all. Its words have been carefully
chosen so that they no longer convey any information; they just
provide an illusion of information.
What makes all of this scary is that communication develops from
habit. The more that we are exposed to Junk English and the more
comfortable we are with it, the less comfortable we are with plain
language. And if we are only comfortable with talking and writing
in superficial clichés and empty rhetoric, then we, too,
become superficial and empty, until the only thing that moves us
sensational, and then the super-sensational, and then the ultra-sensational.
We lose the ability to sift evidence, to evaluate an argument,
to be critical thinkers, to uphold our end of a democracy.
We encounter Junk English so frequently, and it comes at us from
so many different directions, that we are becoming deaf and blind
to the emptiness and ugliness of much of what we read and hear and
My critics—and I have a few—insist that language changes,
and that branding certain language “junk” thwarts the
natural evolution of American English. Our language does change;
it is alive with new words and phrases like gaydar and road rage
and emoticon that may not be graceful, but that are useful and
But much of Junk English is not natural. It is forced. It is contrived.
It is blatantly artificial. It is a corruption of the purpose of
language, not an unaffected change.
In 1776 Thomas Paine wrote The American Crisis. Here is how he began
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer
soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from
of his country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and
thanks of man and woman.”
That’s 41 words, 33 of them one syllable. Compare that to
this, written by a modern-day Thomas Paine. It is no less passionate
sincere, but observe the language:
“Millions of us innately recognize that globalization does
not address the issues of grassroots democratic processes, but
inevitabilities while proceeding with building institutions for
top-down public-private partnerships to control and regulate the behaviors
of the global masses.”
Again, 41 words. But this person has lost his battle before he even
opened his mouth, because he thinks like a bureaucracy or a corporation,
not like a human being.
We’re all starting to think like bureaucracies and corporations
now. We’re forgetting that we’re human, and that simple
language is more effective than empty, overblown rhetoric.
If we are to survive in a complicated world, we need to stop talking,
and writing, and thinking in shallow and sloppy terms. We need to
recognize that we do not help ourselves by using language to hide
problems; we only make it more difficult for us to see them and to
Junk English was my attempt to say some of this in 144 little pages.
I hope that the idea of Junk English sticks in your brain, and
that the next time you have an urge to write or say “the
fact of the matter is,” or concretize, or polyattentiveness—a
little pain shoots through your skull. And you cry, “Oooh!
Junk English!” And you stop.
Ken Smith ’80,
was graduated with a B.A. in Communications. His books include
Ken’s Guide To The Bible, Mental Hygiene:
Classroom Films 1945–1970, Raw Deal: Horrible And Ironic
Stories Of Forgotten Americans, and The New Roadside America, the
last co-authored with Doug Kirby ’79.