We speak in negatives without realizing it. Imagine what that does to our brain. Conversely, imagine what turning those unintentional negatives into positives would subconsciously do to enhance our lives and the lives of others?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful? Translated: Would not it be wonderful? Why do we say that? Especially when we could say: That would be wonderful!
For the past half year, I have been collecting negative phrases. (I’m a communication coach, so this is my idea of great fun).
Some negative phrases such as: “We cannot not communicate.” just muddle the mind and need immediate tuning out or time-consuming, distraction-causing translation.
How about those mindless knee-jerk reactions we say when we’re supposedly reinforcing someone’s thought:
- No way!
- You don’t say!
Some negative phrases lure us into sounding as if our thoughts transcend all vocabulary:
- Words cannot express how I feel…
- I can’t tell you how…
Here are some negative phrases, taken literally, we do not intend to communicate:
- It wouldn’t hurt to pick up a gallon of milk while you’re out. (I hope not!)
- I’ll see if I can’t drop by.
- Wouldn’t you agree?
- He wants it in the worst way.
- He’s awfully nice. (What!?)
- He wants the reward badly.
- You wouldn’t know where the restroom is, would you?
We use some negative phrases to make us sound profound. I put them in the “What does this mean?” category:
- No small amount of coercing convinced her. (What does that mean?)
- That’s nothing short of a miracle.
- It never rains but it pours.
- I’m talking about none other than…
- He couldn’t care less.
- frustrated to no end
- anything less than
- It didn’t take two hours to help… (Are we asking how long it didn’t take?)
Some negative phrases just scream to be expressed in the positive:
- Nothing is impossible (Everything is possible.)
- There’s no other God than our God. (One God exists. / Ours is the only God. etc.)
Some phrases are just verbal clutter:
- I don’t know about you but… (eliminate this)
- He’s nothing but a boy (He’s young.)
- Nothing has impressed us more than… (We are most impressed with…)
- No one has contributed more than she. (She has contributed the most.)
- He is not unschooled. (He’s educated.)
- More times than not…
How about those negative phrases we’ve heard others say and we don’t even bother to decipher:
- I told him in no uncertain terms…
- I’m nothing if not punctual.
- She’s the best actress—bar none.
- It wasn’t for naught (or, It wasn’t for nothing)
Some negative phrases are just grammatically wrong–double negatives:
- can’t hardly
- You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Some negative phrases derail and steal the limelight:
- We couldn’t ask for better friends. (Are the speakers saying they weren’t allowed to ask for better friends…or, if they were allowed, they were physically unable to do so?) How about: They are our best friends.
Some phrases put a damper on responses to everyday pleasantries:
- How are you? Not bad. or I can’t complain.
- What kind of a job did he do? Not half bad.
- Thank you. No problem
- What do you think? That’s not a bad idea
Are you ready for irony? We are actually seeking agreement when we phrase these questions in the negative:
- Wouldn’t it be nice…?
- Don’t you think?
- Why don’t you come over tonight for dinner
- Why not bring your friends along too?
- Didn’t we decide on that last Tuesday?
Our minds struggle with processing negatives such as “not” and “no.” For example, when we hear “Don’t (do not) think about lime colored worms, we first have to think about lime colored worms to NOT think about them.
That’s why the following phrases need to be turned into the positive:
- Don’t fall. (Watch where you step.)
- Don’t forget to…. (Remember to….)
- Without a doubt, he is the winner. (He is the winner.)
- Don’t use negatives. (Use positives.)
- Don’t arrive after 7:00. (Arrive before 7:00.)
- Don’t send so many emails. (Consolidate your emails.)
- No littering, loitering, cursing or using unnecessary and confusing phrases! (Be neat, ambitious, professional, succinct and clear.)
- You won’t be disappointed. (You’ll enjoy it.)
- Can I bother you to…? (Possible answer: Yes, you can bother me. Instead say, Would you please….?)
- I don’t disagree with any of it. (I agree with all of it.)
And finally, some negatives are legitimate transitions. I recommend using them sparingly:
- not only…but also
Be kind to your listeners and readers and think before you use negatively laced and consequently convoluted phrases. Those to whom you communicate will see you as a positive, empowering person…and they will have no idea why they feel that way!
Go for it!
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When something is pretty interesting, is it more than interesting? Or is it less than interesting?
By a show of hands at a recent workshop I conducted, 90% of the participants felt the word “pretty” lessened the adjective that it modified.
For example, how do you feel about these two sentences?
- That meal was pretty satisfying.
- That project was pretty effective.
Now, what’s your feeling about these sentences?
- This is interesting.
- The meal is satisfying.
- That project is effective.
The adjectives interesting, satisfying and effective don’t need help. Their meanings are all-encompassing and they don’t need to lessoned, which is what these words do. They don’t need qualifiers: words such as pretty, quite, rather and kind of. And they don’t need to be artificially bolstered, which is what the words really, very, really, really and very, very do.
My advice: start increasing your arsenal of vocabulary words so you immediately think of the precise words. For example, for “sort of interesting,” say appealing, pleasing. Instead of “very interesting,” say fascinating, intriguing, captivating, enthralling. When we use qualifiers, we are usually not motivated to think harder for the precise word.
Who loses? We do and so do our listeners do. Imagine how much richer our thoughts and communication would be if we bothered to think of the correct word!
My challenge to you: expunge really and very from your vocabulary. That will force you to research and collect additional words. If you need to, write those words in a notebook and glance at them occasionally.
I’m taking my own challenge.
Let me know how you do.
As I watched and listened to a marketing person give a short impromptu presentation, I quickly identified the word she would use that would repeatedly allow her time to think, eliminate any wordless pauses, and make her sound like a bottom-line executive. Her word of choice: “basically.”
After she said the word four times in the first three sentences, I did what people think I do all the time (and usually don’t): I started keeping track.
After the woman spoke for five minutes and used “basically” seventeen more times, a man asked, “So you’re saying, basically, that….”
Her answer: “That, basically, is correct.”
We absorb the vocabulary and affectations of others. That’s why so many people are inserting “I mean” into their sentences–and they are not aware they are doing it!
What I witnessed during this woman’s short presentation was unintentional brainwashing at its best.
To combat this, we need to expunge the unnecessary and distracting filler words from our sentences and be vigilant that we don’t make space in our sentences for other people’s verbal clutter.
What filler words or phrases do you guard yourself against?
Consummate professionals stand out. We can spot them by their attitude, demeanor, attire, perspective and people skills: their professional courtesy. The total package is communication, which also involves the words people use and how they use them.
Communication is a passion of mine, and I particularly delight in words–words well-chosen and words correctly used.
This article focuses on the use of correctly-used words by pointing out some common grammatical mistakes.
I repeatedly remind my clients of what has now become a Verbal Edge maxim: “When in doubt, leave the other word out.” This maxim applies to the first example. The other examples of grammatical faux pas could also use their own maxims. If you are in a maxim-writing mode, go for it! I would love to read what you create.
“Me and John observed the conflict.” Verbal Edge Maxim: “When in doubt, leave the other word out.” Leave the other word–John–out. Now the sentence is “Me observed the conflict.” It is suddenly obvious we need to change the me to I. Now add John. We’re not finished correcting this. The other person’s name always goes first. The corrected sentence reads ” John and I observed the conflict.”
Test this maxim with the sentence: “He gave the gift to Emma and I.” Leave out the word Emma. How does it sound? What is the correct way to say this? “He gave the gift to Emma and me.”
“He don’t“ means he do not. We need to say “He doesn’t–he does not. Many people make this mistake because the verb do is used with all the other grammatical persons:
- I / we (first person) do
- you (second person) do
- they, the cars (third person plural) do
- Only he, she, John, the car (third person singular) requires does.
Even though this makes no sense, you need to say it this way. It’s just one of many grammatical anomalies we need to know. For that reason, do think before saying the word don’t!
“I got a sad story.” “Got milk.” “We got to leave.” Worse yet: “I gotta leave.” The correct word is have…not got! ( I have a sad story. I have milk. We have to leave.)
Saying have got is an attempt to make something wrong sound half-right. Forgive me here: I get emotional with the ubiquitous misusage of this word. Got is not a present tense word–it is the past tense of get. Use got when:
- you brought or retrieved something–I got his coat from the closet
- became something–got emotional
- caused something to be done–got them all fired up
- caught an illness–got the virus
- moved somewhere–got to work on time.
In all other circumstances, PLEASE use have. Do you have that?!
It’s not “I seen,“ it’s “I saw.” Saw is the past tense–seen is never used in the past tense. (The audience saw the actor fall. We saw it on television.) Seen is used when it follows the words have, has, had, having: I have seen. I had seen. I will have seen. Having seen my mistakes, I will write carefully.)
Lie / lay. You’re never too old to get this one down. It’s easy. Generally, if someone or something does the action, the verb is lie. (I lie on the coach. Every day, he lies in bed until noon. The cat lies on the grass.) If the action is done to someone or something, the verb is lay. (He lay the baby in the crib. I lay the book on the table.)
Here’s where it gets a bit trickier: switching to the other tenses. You need to memorize this: lie, lay, lain and lay, laid, laid.(Lie: I lie in bed. I lay in bed yesterday. I have lain in bed all week. Lay: He lay the baby in the crib. He laid the baby in the crib at 2:00. He has laid the baby in the crib at 2:00 every day.) Don’t lie around worrying about this. Lay aside your concerns and other reading materials and tackle this!
“I would have went“ needs to be “I would have gone.” Memorize this: Go, went, gone. Went is past tense.( John went to the store.) As with seen, only use gone when it follows the words have, has, had or having. (John has gone to the store. John will have gone to the store twelve times today. Having gone through this, you will now speak with more confidence.)
I listen intently when people talk, and I delight in the concepts and pictures their words create. Conversely, I become frustrated when, as a listener, I need to mentally substitute my vocabulary words when people, equipped with the words, retreat to their favorite knee-jerk adjectives and filler phrases. Listeners have enough to do without having to also take on the vocabulary responsibilities of the speaker.
For that reason, many of my articles will involve how we, the speakers, can make the effort to convey exactly what we want to say. This requires thinking before we speak, reframing our initial impulsive responses, digging deeply into our sometimes-dormant vocabulary, or intentionally building our vocabulary to come up with just the right words—not those mindless throw-away words and phrases. (Can you detect my frustration embedded in that last point? That’s the power of adjectives!)
Many of us repeatedly use certain words that are often more apparent to others than to ourselves. For example, large cross sections of people have latched onto the words awesome and/or cool and won’t let go! I’m intentionally not in that group. I believe awesome is reserved to describe God and catastrophic events—anything that is jaw-dropping and elicits awe. As for cool, I’m a literalist and I struggle with using a temperature-related / temperament-related word as a catch-all adjective.
Because the clichéd awesome and cool are used to describe almost anything and the listeners are left to interpret the actual meanings, some speakers are taking back some of the control and introducing variety. They are teaming the overused adjectives with adverbs—usually weak adverbs. The result? We hear phrases such as really awesome, so awesome, or very cool, way cool, really cool, or pretty cool.
What’s the alternative? I recommend stockpiling an arsenal of strong, evocative adjectives and then strategically choosing those that create the desired results. On behalf of those of us who want one-stop options for awesome or cool, I’ve compiled a partial list of suggested alternatives—words that can stand alone and do not need the help of the weak adverbs.
Instead of awesome, depending on the situation, you could use amazing, astonishing, astounding, awe-inspiring, breathtaking, brilliant, captivating, excellent, exceptional, exhilarating, exquisite, extraordinary, gorgeous, impressive, incomparable, incredible, inimitable, luxurious, magnificent, majestic, miraculous, opulent, outstanding, overwhelming, phenomenal, rare, resplendent, riveting, sensational, spectacular, splendid, superior, superlative, superb, supreme, transcendent, tremendous, unbelievable, unprecedented, unsurpassed, or wonderful.
For cool, you might consider using alluring, ambitious, appealing, beautiful, clever, compelling, dazzling, delightful, distinguished, elaborate, elegant, enthusiastic, enticing, fascinating, fine, good, graceful, grand, great, handsome, ideal, imaginative, impressive, interesting, intriguing, lovely, memorable, nice, noteworthy, pleasant, precious, prodigious, radiant, refined, remarkable, soothing, special, stimulating, striking, stunning, surprising, touching, towering, uncommon, unusual and wild.
My challenge to you is to use this list and augment it. A place to start is the Internet. Among other adjective list sites, check out this very basic one: http://www.keepandshare.com/doc/12894/adjective-list. I hope you’ll find this adjective-gathering experience stimulating and rewarding! Let me know. I would love to hear from you.