Insights
3 min Read
March 2, 2017

Words to Avoid—2017 Edition

It’s 2017 and we’ve emerged from our post-inauguration fog to get back to the business of what we do best: Guide nonprofits toward clear, conscious, and engaging communication habits to stand out in this noisy world.

Yearly disclaimer: We offer this list as a friendly guide towards making stronger, more thoughtful word choices in your everyday communications. What you find below may be the right—or only—choice at times, and that’s fine. But, with a little extra consideration, a much better word can almost always be used in its place.

____-driven
I’d love to be driven to as many places as I’ve seen services and programs described as “data-driven” or “research-driven.” Instead of suggesting influence, take your reader on the ride! What research shapes your programs? How exactly does data inform what you do?

Untapped (potential)
To describe individuals who have been excluded from resources, tools, or opportunities to succeed, the sentiment makes sense, but is vague and ubiquitous. The dictionary tells me that “untapped” is actually best used to describe natural resources that haven’t been exploited yet. I don’t think the true function of potential (or anything) is to be used up until it’s extinguished. What does your participants’ potential actually look like?

Empower
This word serves social, family, and feminist organizations exceptionally, but I feel uncomfortable about its implications. The idea of giving authority, opportunities, or dignity to people when they should (ideally) have access to those resources in the first place emphasizes the one who’s doing the giving (and owns the power). If your program is meant to help people learn enriching skills, cultivate confidence, or find mentorship, say so specifically.

Cutting-edge
Ow!

Iterative
If you look this word up in the dictionary, you’ll find a tautological definition, “relating to or involving iteration, especially of a mathematical or computational process,” which wouldn’t be an issue—if you were talking about a math problem. But this jargon comes up far too often in nonprofit context, and for what purpose? If a process, plan, or development is very complex or involves multiple trials, maybe it’s useful to talk about it in a way that’s less alienating.

Comprehensive
As a shortcut to say your organization does everything, comprehensive hurts more than helps. The idea of doing it all does a nonprofit little service in differentiating who they are. If you really are doing everything in your field, by all means, use this word, but please make sure it’s true first. Otherwise, define your objectives and mission clearly for potential participants, donors, and supporters so your audiences personally connect with your unique slice of the pie.

A special tip: Hyphens (-), en dashes (–), and em dashes (—) are not the same.
This isn’t technically a word to avoid, but a lesson in clarity. The differences among these three lines are subtle, and when used improperly, don’t drastically change a sentence’s meaning, but please take note:

    • The hyphen (often improperly stylized — as an em dash) should only be used to connect words that work together to form a single concept, such as “year-end” or “community-led.” 
    • The en dash middle child connects things across distances like, January–March or 1994–2017. 
    • Use the em dash (—) to add a thought within a sentence—as I have attempted to do here (and be sure to close that thought with another em dash if it’s in the middle of a sentence).

This level of grammatical detail isn’t absolutely necessary to get your message across, but will certainly ensure consistency and convey expertise.

That’s all for 2017, and I hope it helps. What words would you like to remove from office this year? We’d love to hear your nominations in the comments!

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