Words to Avoid—2013 Edition

by Dan Gunderman

Gee, now that it's February, is it too late to think about words to avoid for 2013? Never, nonprofiteers. Never...

I'm including the usual annual caveats about this list of words, especially this: If any word on the list is truly the most effective choice for reaching your reader, please go ahead and use it. I would simply suggest that you ask yourself if it's truly the most effective choice.

And, with that, here are a few words that Big Duck recommends you avoid (or at least be fully conscious that you're using):

I'm sure I've been guilty of using this one. It's just too familiar. But let's remember that unless you've been elected to office, you don't actually have constituents. You have participants, donors, friends, family, or any other word that describes your different audience members.

This is one of those words nonprofits use because it sounds really good. Optimize means "to make something the best." Bold claim. Even bolder than making something better. We recommend that you just say what you mean. If there's genuinely nothing you can do to make something better, go ahead and consider it optimized.

Ecosystem (when you don't mean actual ecosystems)
This one, as a metaphor, has crept into the nonprofit world with aplomb over the past year. Directness is a trusted friend when communicating. Unless you want people to think about biological organisms living in an interconnected natural environment, you're likely to lose your reader or listener when you use ecosystem in another context.

Interwebs, internuts, FaceSpace, etc.
Some of you might remember 2004. During one of the presidential debates, President George W. Bush referred to the "internets." Ever since, nearly a decade later, the hipsters of Brooklyn (home of Big Duck) have embraced ironic terms that imply they don't know how the internet works. Boy, it sure rubs some of the Ducks the wrong way. On a mostly unrelated note, I live in Queens.

Strive, help, work, etc.
Big Duck is definitely guilty of using this group of words, and truth be told, there's nothing wrong with the words themselves. But they do encourage weak sentence construction. Nonprofits habitually avoid taking credit for the great work they do. It results in passive voice, or sentences like, "We work to protect endangered species." How about instead, "We protect endangered species"? Please be careful in your use of these words.


I've lost the war on impact.
No amount of kvetching (and it's been several years of it) seems to have any impact on the totally unimpactful way that people use impact. I hereby throw in the towel (although I did keep my 2012 New Year's resolution to get it out of Big Duck's values, thanks to some good thinking by Katherine).

But if I admit defeat on this word, will you kind nonprofiteers at least agree not to use impacts, as a plural noun? I recently saw a sentence that went something like this: "We've got a week of big impacts in front of us."

Have we lost total control of our senses, people?! For the love of all that is holy in this life, it must not happen again! Will you grant me that much? Please? I'm actually begging you now.

You guys have any words you're planning to avoid this year? Tell us in the comments.

Credit where credit is due:
As always, I received much input from colleagues before honing my list. You may (or may not) be surprised to learn that some of them have even stronger opinions about words than I do.

Also, be sure to check out The Lake Superior State University's annual list of banished words. They always have a few excellent ones on their list. My favorites this year: trending and boneless wings.

Finally, a friend sent me a link to Jargonated.com the other day. Lots of words to avoid in there. And if you click the "jargon me" button a few times, you might begin to wonder if they're not making fun of company names like Big Duck. Hm...

12 Comments RSS

Joanne Fritz |
LOL...luv this! I hate "impact" too, almost as much as I dislike "scale." A good rule for any writing is to talk like you would to your grandmother or your neighbor across the back yard fence. There are always easier, sweeter, and lovelier words for what we are saying. The best talker/writer these days is Garrison Keillor, the Mark Twain of our time. Listen to him, read his stuff, get over yourself.
Dan |
Thanks for reading, Joanne. You won't get an argument from me about Garrison Keillor. My dad was a Lutheran minister who grew up in Minnesota, and we routinely sang in four-part harmony at family reunions. So there's also truth to his storytelling.
Mandi Moshay |
I am so on board with everything listed (especially impact). I could die happy if I knew people would cut back on using "catalyze." Maybe it's a west coast thing, but nonprofits all over Seattle are catalyzing everything. Please...no more!
Dan |
Mandi, I'm with you on "catalyze" and "catalyst," which was on the 2010 list. We get it a lot on the East Coast, too.
Paula, thanks for the link. A solid list of 12 offending terms.
Teresa |
Thank you so much for this wonderful list of words we should avoid and the light hearted way in which you present them. I for one hope never again to see these words starting any thank you letter sent by a non-profit "on behalf of".
Diana |
Dan, I'm with you on "impact"!
Dan |
Teresa and Diana, thanks for reading. On behalf of all of my colleagues, I thank you. (Ahem...)
Sue |
SO... good to read this... One of my other non descriptive words is "exciting". Some people must lead very uneventful lives if they really find exciting what they say they do.
NPOd |
Is it the words you hate or the misuse of the words? Overuse is in the eye of the beholder. If these words are being used correctly by definition, then to paraphrase - 'Get over yourselves.'
Marlene Oliveira |
Hahahaha! I LOVE this post. So right on and yet so hilarious.
I was at an event just yesterday evening and was 'ecosystemed'. It was really quite jarring in the conversation.
And I have to admit guilt on 'interwebs'...kind of. I once had a CEO who stated that he had to 'napster' something (he meant search/Google) and I just can't resist the urge to reuse this around colleagues who were there with me at the time. It was years and years ago. I'll try to let it go, I promise.
My addition to the list is 'improve'. So many nonprofits cling to the safety of 'improving' while putting their readers to sleep. In particular, 'improving lives' as a tagline. So weak and generic.
Cathy Galbraith |
In Portland, I'm sick of the over-use of: "incentivize", "re-purpose", and the inappropriate use of "sustainable", which every business uses in their ads - - so their business is "sustainable" because they say so.
Dan |
Thanks for reading, nice people, and oh, boy, "sustainable" deserves a place on this list. Some of those other suggestions are pretty good, too. We really appreciate you all taking the time to read and comment.
And NPOd, overuse is certainly in the eye of the beholder, but I spend a lot of time in the weeds of nonprofit writing, so I offer this list simply to challenge nonprofit writers to try harder to find the most effective language possible.

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