Category Archives: word choice

We’re needy

Have you noticed the word need being used a lot? If you pay attention, you’ll hear it everywhere.

Today I went to a shipping company’s store and saw this poster on the wall.

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Can the china in the poster need to be delivered overnight?

The poster uses the transitive verb need in a way that used to be unconventional. Now, the usage has become embedded in the American lexicon beyond all hope. Even in formal settings.

In July 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking about conflict in Gaza, said, “This needs to end for everybody.”

In January 2014, President Obama stood before Congress and the American television audience and delivered his State of the Union address. The president’s speechwriters had armed him with these words: “This needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions.”

Conflict can’t need. A year can’t need. Teacups can’t need to travel.

When Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary gives example sentences for the transitive verb (a verb that takes an object) need, people are the subjects who need something.MW need

When John Kerry said “This (the strife) needs to end for everybody,” he meant everyone needs the strife to end. When the president said “This needs to be the year,” he meant the people need this to be the year. When the customer being quoted in the shipping poster says teacups need to travel, the customer means the sender (or the recipient) needs the teacups to travel.

More appropriate terms would have been ought to, has to, or should. A stronger word would have been must.

When speakers or writers project their own need onto objects or ideas by saying the object or idea needs something, they come across as tentative. It’s as if they’re ducking the blame: “Don’t blame me. The teacups are the ones that need to travel.”

In a related quirky use, sometimes an individual with a need projects the need onto another person, to avoid being direct. “You need to fill this out,” a medical receptionist said while handing me a form. I thought, “I do? Strange; I don’t feel a need.” In fact, the receptionist was uncomfortable stating a request. The words she was uneasy saying: “Please fill this out.”

This indirectness or softening seems to have caught on relatively recently. In my school days, I never heard a teacher issue a feeble “You need to be quiet.” Teachers were comfortable using what grammarians call the imperative mood. They stated commands.

Be quiet. Please sign here. The strife must end. This must be the year.

Speakers and writers who overuse need seem too timid to use strong, explicit words. They should get over it. Audiences crave clarity.

Of course our language is constantly changing and evolving. I embrace that. But this imprecise and bashful application of need is an example of language evolution that I could do without.

Is this a tempest in a teapot? I don’t think so. Sure, the transitive verb need is often used of things, and that usage sounds sensible some of the time (my car needs an oil change). But it sounds dissonant when oddly projected onto a thing that is not in need (that dog needs to stop barking; the rain needs to end).

This use of need in casual conversation is here to stay; there’s no fighting it.

But business writers, speechwriters, and other professional communicators should show more sophisticated use of the language. They should give their audience what it—yes—needs: direct, clear expression.

Clarity. That’s every editor’s cup of tea.

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Not that again

The February post on this blog discussed when to use that and when to use which.

That can be troublesome in another way, too: by its absence.

Many writers have developed the habit of leaving out the word that. Omitting that can cause confusion. If a reader must go back and reread a sentence because an omitted that made the sentence unclear, communication is ineffective.

I recently read a sentence that began, “We anticipate the report . . .”

How did your brain process that phrase? My brain thought the next words would probably tell me when we anticipate the report. I was ready for something like, “We anticipate the report by Friday.” The phrasing had set my expectations.

But in fact, the second half of the sentence was, “will contain your recommendations.” Wait, what? I stumbled, then read it again:

We anticipate the report will contain your recommendations.

Readers should not have to read a sentence once, pause to recover from mental whiplash, and read the sentence a second time. Readers should not have to work so hard.

The writer created a miscue by omitting that:

(Improved) We anticipate that the report will contain your recommendations.

With that included, the reader can easily understand the sentence and move on.

Another example:

Hatfield County claimed the property was worth $1 million.

Did you start out thinking that Hatfield County claimed the property? The omission of that can cause confusion for a moment.

(Improved) Hatfield County claimed that the property was worth $1 million.

Here’s one more example:

She demonstrated the system
saves time.

Where would a that help the reader?

The Associated Press Stylebook says, “When in doubt, include that. Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.”

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The best word

In election season, we hear many euphemisms. Speakers and writers try to soften messages and distract us from reality. We must decipher terms such as “revenue enhancement,” used instead of direct words such as “taxes.”

Too often, though, writers and speakers use imprecise words not because they are deliberately trying to obscure a message, but because of laziness. Without giving much thought to choosing the word that will best express an idea, they settle for the nearest word that will do. In some cases, they choose a word that has been repeated so frequently that its use has become automatic, even if a different word would more precisely convey the intended meaning.

For example, the flabby word “major” is used often, and in many cases it’s ambiguous and less than clear. In the sentence, “The board plans to make major changes,” a more specific word might be important, significant, critical, sweeping, broad, extensive, far-reaching, widespread, or costly.

The related word “majority” is often the wrong choice too. “Most” is the right word in most (not “in the majority of”) cases.

And now, heaven help us, the word “major” has been made into a trendy slang adverb: “majorly.” I have heard this made-up modifier spoken in casual conversation by people under age 30. Recently, I even encountered the word in a business document that I edited. An educated person actually typed the phrase, “majorly renovated.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as I substituted “extensively.”

“Get” is another overused word. Meaning might be more precisely conveyed with acquire, obtain, procure, become, develop, progress, catch, come to be, understand, or a dozen other expressions.

I noticed the word selections made by news outlets in the illustration below. Some news organizations made interesting choices.

Sometimes writers use the first word that comes to mind, instead of aiming for the most suitable word. The English language has a rich vocabulary. We can do better than choosing words that are vague or that have become diluted through overuse.

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Observed today at CNN.com

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