Does your organisation publish reports that aim to influence senior decision-makers? Richard Cheeseman offers some advice.
5. Avoid devalued words
A devalued word is one that has lost most of its original force through over use, or use in the wrong context. An example is the word vital, which policy writers continually use as a flabby synonym for important. Its actual meaning is “essential to life” (as in vital signs) but it is now rarely used in that sense other than by doctors.
Adjectives such as vital are especially subject to devaluation because writers cannot resist using them inappropriately, which slowly erodes their potency. How often have you read the adjective devastated in a sports article describing the feelings of a player who has come second in a big match? The word’s original force as an adjective meaning “destroyed or laid to waste” has been almost completely diminished by use in this context.
Words are like human beings; they quickly become tired when over worked. If you find yourself tempted to write a sentence such as “we have an innovative plan for improving how medicines are delivered”, ask yourself whether this over worked adjective is really justified? Unless your plan is genuinely original and inventive do not use the word, because you are further devaluing a badly diminished adjective. If you really mean new write that – although a plan that is not new in some way is probably not worth writing about.
Test of strength
Let’s look more closely at the process by which words lose their value. I remember feeling pleased with myself back in the early-90s for using the adjective robust in a policy document about implementing Total Quality systems. “That’s a good word”, said my editor. “Robust. I like that”. At the time it seemed a more colourful way of saying strong, and somehow more expressive of the qualities needed: sturdy and fit for purpose. However, in the 20 years since then it has become seriously devalued by over use in policy contexts.
Robust comes from the Latin robustus, meaning strong or firm, so it has been around in one form or another for centuries. For most of its existence writers applied it to everyday items such as footwear, buildings and boats when they wanted to imply durability and strength. This proposition was easy to test, because physical things tend to fall apart quickly if they are not strong.
However, in the 20th Century writers began increasingly to attach robust to intangible things, such as constitutions, legal frameworks and policies. Again, the intention was to imply strength, but the proposition was much harder to test. Constitutions, legal frameworks and policies may be written down, but they are purely mental constructs. There is no immediate way of establishing whether they are robust, because unlike physical items you cannot test their strength by hitting them with a stick or taking them to sea to check if they float.
This has not stopped thousands of writers (myself included) from appending the adjective to policies and proposals that are so new they cannot possibly have been tested. A 2015 update on global policy for women’s and children’s health refers to the need for “robust mechanisms to track progress”. This is a worthy aspiration, but the use of the word here is window dressing. The intended meaning is “we need mechanisms that serve their intended purpose”, but the writer thinks robust somehow adds force or substance.
The same report uses the word nine times elsewhere to bolster statements on subjects as diverse and intangible as trend analysis, demand for contraceptives, a product pipeline, research efforts, systems for data collection and civil society and media groups. To apply our practical test of strength and durability, none are things you could hit with a stick or take to sea.
This kind of indiscriminate use has devalued the word robust. Readers can no longer take it at face value as meaning strong, when the intended meaning is aspirational rather than strictly descriptive. If you apply this test to other commonly used adjectives, it is easy to spot those that have become devalued. Here is a short list:
All are frequently used in policy documents, and all have become devalued by the same process that affected robust. Nouns and verbs are also affected. Consider the following:
The common theme in all three lists is that words that originated as tools for describing the physical world have become devalued by continual use to describe or qualify concepts.
Summary: avoid devalued words unless you can use them in ways that reflect their original meanings.
Next post: 6. Avoid redundant words