Please Stop Using These Words at Work

Julia Millay Walsh

Language has given us Shakespeare and The Beatles and Maya Angelou. It’s given us cultural phenomena, best-sellers, and chart-toppers. It unites us in so many ways. But language can also bring us down, if we’re not careful. In the workplace, the words you choose to use—and you do choose your words—impact the way you’re understood and viewed, which ultimately affects how you’re treated. Using the wrong word or words can make you appear less confident or clear than you are, and can make your colleagues find you unnecessarily terse or critical. Selecting the right word is a lifelong practice, and I’m as guilty as the next person, but in the interest of awareness, here are a few types of terms we could all cut back on.

Negative Words

Negativity is never an expression you want to breed in the workplace—or in life. However, words with a negative connotation can easily create a bad vibe without you even realising it. In addition to other cues, like the strength of your voice, hand gestures, and font choices, the words that you use inform the overall tone of your message. So when possible, it’s best to avoid negative words. These include terms like unfortunately, mistake, problem, never, error, late, wrong, and cannot. Another big one is do not.

Find a way to bring out the positive side of your point or request. For example, do not can be replaced with please or you should.

Instead of

Unfortunately, if you miss a meeting again, our team will have to handle this project without you, and I don’t want that to happen.


Please remember to come to our weekly meetings, as your teammates value your input, and this project is an opportunity for you.

The Unproductive Adverb

There’s a plague that’s spreading through conversation, and it’s the unproductive adverb. You know these words: literally, just, actually, really, basically, totally, very. I literally can’t stand to watch this. I feel very anxious about this project. It’s basically all I read anymore. You can totally hold a meeting in my office. I just want you to know that… Remove any of these words, and the sentence will be stronger for it.

Women in particular tend to use these words as a way of asking for permission or softening the blow. I just wanted to ask. I actually had a thought. You obviously realise this, but… What it adds up to is a lack of confidence. If you have a question, ask it. If you have a great idea, say it. Don’t give yourself a lay-up to introduce your thought. Say your thought! You don’t need permission to be a part of a conversation, and the more you use these words, the more they’ll work against you.

The Superfluous Adjective

Adjectives can be quite tricky. We use them to give a noun more meaning, but in practice, our overuse of adjectives can cause nouns to lose their impact or meaning. Take the word passion, for example. It means an intense desire or enthusiasm for something. Saying “baseball is my biggest passion” is not as strong as “baseball is my passion,” i.e., it is your end-all and be-all.

In the workplace, people tend to use positive adjectives like great, excellent, and wonderful, to make their tone seem upbeat. For example, “This amazing website has a great search engine for marketing materials” or “Awesome. Well, I’m going to get some lunch.” Is the search engine really great, or is it just unique because it searches for a specific media? Was whatever you were just discussing actually awesome—or are you just filling a blank space? Spraying out these words so freely takes away their value, so when you do have a valid reason to use them, they don’t have as much punch.


Many of us are guilty of using words like umso, or uh as pauses between thoughts or points—and it seems to particularly afflict millennials. In everyday conversation, they can have the benefit of making statements seem more casual or familiar, but in business, the use of these words can cause your thoughts and statements to appear less concise or clear than they are. When you have conviction about a certain point, it’s a shame to lose the strength and firmness of your message to a two-letter word. Inevitably, these types of fillers can kill your credibility, because they tell the listener you’re not 100% sure of what you’re saying.

Want to cleanse these from your vocabulary? Record yourself in your next meeting and count how many times you utter each filler word to find out which is your weakness. Before your next presentation, prepare and practice your “speech” so you need fewer pauses between thoughts. When you do need a moment to pause, try to embrace the silence. Silence is golden.

What else would you add to this list? Tell us below.
Explore: language, Vocabulary, Work

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