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Write Your Way Into the Euphemism-Free Zone

This post originally appeared in Susan Kostal's Legal Marketing Bits & Bites Newsletter. Sign up for more content here.

Unemployment is at a 16-year low, at 4.3%. Part of that improvement is undoubtedly the cottage industry that has exploded based on parsing language coming out of the Trump Administration. Much work last month went into dissecting the use of the word “hope.” Until we get an evaluation of any potential obstruction of justice charges, I’ll label Trump’s use of “hope” a euphemism.

If red is too bold, try green.

Stay Away From Dangerous Cliffs

For serious writers and editors, euphemisms are the equivalent of “OMG get away from that cliff right now.” Euphemisms muddy communication, breed confusion and mistrust, and generally set off red flags.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Inigo Montoya in the “The Princess Bride”

While exaggeration puts a sentence or paragraph in danger, an ill-considered euphemism places the whole message on a precipice. It poisons the entire text. Why? While exaggeration and hyperbole are bold, brash and passionate (and therefore potentially forgiven as an emotional outburst), euphemism is inherently defensive and suggests deceit. We live in a post-fact, euphemism-laden political environment, which means we need to be all the more vigilant in our own writing and phrasing. Let Papa Keep You Safe

How to avoid these? Take a Hemingwayesque approach to your copy. Short sentences, clear nouns and verbs and simple construction. Multiple clauses and qualifiers in a sentence or paragraph should raise an alarm. A sentence that seems to demand a full paragraph of explanation is highly suspect. If you are tempted to use a word that lies outside of these boundaries, consider what it means in a different context. United Airlines made the unfortunate choice to use the word “reaccommodate” when airport police forcibly removed a passenger from an overbooked flight. Examine whether you would use the word to describe killer whales trapped in the wild to be housed at aquariums or theme parks. Consider using it to describe evicted tenants, or a divorcing spouse court-ordered to move from the family home. None of these pass the “reaccommodate” smell test. Think of how you would communicate in any longstanding and valuable relationship. Be clear, be authentic, genuine, and concise. These are the most dependable guardrails. Bottom Line: Write Clearly and Plainly

If a client’s approach is dangerous, don’t deem it “questionable.” Your clients deserve your direct and straightforward analysis. Most attorneys won’t fall into this trap. All the same, don’t risk falling back on vague language to avoid angering a valued client. Don’t poke a presiding judge by employing a softer euphemism in an attempt to soften a client’s culpability. And definitely don’t use euphemism in a conversation with a partner or spouse. Keep the peace. Speak plainly and clearly. Enough said. ###

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