Last Updated: Jul 25, 2013
Is your word choice distracting people from the message you’re trying to deliver? Here are three words that business people love to use but often misuse.
“Every time you open your mouth to speak, your mind goes on parade.” – Anonymous
The same holds true for the written word of course. And clearly, in business we’d prefer that our mind parade itself with the precision and professionalism of a military marching band or the beauty and elegance of the Rose Bowl pageant. As opposed to, say, the farce and flamboyance of the Pasadena Doo Dah Parade.
Fortunately, the typical business communications mistakes I read and hear rarely reach the level of laughable inelegance that is the hallmark of the Doo Dah event. These slip-ups more closely equate to missteps. They won’t stop the parade, but they will detract from it. In today’s article I highlight three such slip-ups.
1. Forte – You’re at a trade show and it’s the end of the day. You and another woman step onto the elevator, still wearing your nametags. You make eye contact and smile politely. Commenting on the name of her company, you break the ice. “Ironclad Cloud, I like that. Cloud security, right?” Good marketer that she is, she launches into her elevator speech. “Yes,” she begins, “cloud security is our forte,” pronouncing the word for – tay, stressing the second syllable.
Meaning “strong point, something at which one excels,” the word has traditionally been pronounced fort. But over the years it came to be confused with the Italian musical direction (to sing or play loudly), forte, pronounced for – tay. To quote Charles Harrington Elster from his book, The Accidents of Style, “For better or worse, this is now the dominant pronunciation in American speech.” The pronunciation used by our elevator companion though, is an affectation to be avoided.
2. Fulsome – I’ll stick with the trade show theme. It’s the big luncheon and your keynoter has been welcomed to the podium with an effusive introduction. “Wow!” he says. “Thank you. I’m excited to be here today. In fact, after such fulsome praise as John so kindly accorded me in his introduction, I can’t wait to hear what I have to say!”
Fulsome is a troublesome word and careful communicators would do well to leave it be. Indeed, linguist Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, labels fulsome a “skunked term.” It’s easy to understand why. (For a complete list of Garner’s skunked terms email me, subject line: Skunked.) Use fulsome correctly and a large swath of your audience will likely misinterpret what you mean. Use the word incorrectly and another contingent will “tsk, tsk” you. Still others will be confused about what you’re trying to communicate. To illustrate, below are two recent usages of fulsome. The first example is from the website for New Yorker magazine, the second from the New York Times. Interestingly enough, both writers use the word to comment on the same event.
“Congressional Republicans heaped fulsome praise on President Obama’s second Inaugural Address today…”
“In 2010, when the new government of Prime Minister David Cameron turned to austerity policies, it received fulsome praise from many people on this side of the Atlantic.”
The New Yorker gets it right. Fulsome, most correctly, means “cloying, excessive, disgusting; fulsome praise, exaggerated flattery.” (Both the Associated Press Stylebook and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage offer the same guidance. But obviously, some writers at the Times get a pass on fulsome.) Let’s be honest, short of waking up one morning to the sun rising in the west, can you ever imagine congressional Republicans heaping genuine praise on President Obama?
Nevertheless, most online dictionaries list “abundant or copious” as one definition for fulsome. This lack of clarity is reason enough to avoid the word. The fact that it has mixed meanings among large sections of your audience makes it a poor choice for clear, precise communication. So, per Mr. Garner, treat fulsome like you would a skunk. Stay away from it.
3. Peruse – You’re back from a successful trade show and after cleaning up your email inbox you’re sorting through your postal mail. You come to a letter from your elevator companion, the woman from Ironclad Cloud. You’re impressed with her timely
follow-up; and the fact that the letter relates details about your company to specific ways Ironclad’s services can benefit you. Toward the end of the letter though, Ms. Ironclad writes, “So please take a few minutes to quickly peruse our website for more information about how Ironclad Cloud can secure your cloud and save you time and money.”
Actually this is closer to a stumble. First, never use peruse. Ever. It’s stilted and smacks of self-importance. Besides, there’s a perfectly good word that doesn’t come with this baggage: read. Second, the writer’s phrasing of quickly peruse compounds her bad choice. Because peruse, most correctly, means “to read thoroughly or with great care.” That said, the word is often used incorrectly, as evidenced by the 60,000+ results you’ll get when you Google the exact phrase “quickly peruse.” So, to repeat, never use peruse. Banish it from your “parade.” After all, you’re much too cool to make such an uncool word choice.
Summing up then, your foremost goal as a business communicator is to be readily and easily understood. All else – connection, engagement, persuasion – begins here. To achieve this ready and easy understanding always use clear, precise and unambiguous language. Always make every effort to parade your mind with precision and professionalism wherever that parade takes place, be it in an elevator, a banquet room or on a sheet of stationery.