Just. Don’t.

Recently, I mentioned to my frienditor that I was thinking about a post focusing on 10 words we should all use less. “Start with ‘just,’” she recommended. “It’s the most overused word today.”

I completely agree.

Now, “just” has several definitions, but the one I’m interested in is “only” or “simply.” We use this particular meaning of the word to minimize things or excuse statements that, often, don’t really need excusing.

I do this all the time. And I know I do it! That’s why it’s all the more maddening. Consider these recent emails:

  1. Just checking to see if you’ve had a chance to review that article I sent.
  2. Just following up on this. Appreciate the help.
  3. Just checking in to make sure that the document on Sharepoint is ready for my review.
  4. Just wondering if it might merit a shout-out in our next monthly communication.
  5. I made just a few minor edits.
  6. Just my $.02.

All of these statements can be found in my Outlook sent items right now. And there’s more where these come from. Even worse, some of them are accompanied by a smiley-face emoticon. (I hate smiley-face emoticons.)

So why?

In instances 1, 2, and 3, I’m trying to apply gentle pressure. Instead of saying, “Hey, could you please get back to me with any edits on that document; the deadline is looming,” I opt for the less-threatening “just” (because I’m so intimidating). For all of you “Friends” lovers out there, this tactic reminds me of when Monica left that “breezy” message on Richard’s answering machine. I might as well add to the end of each of these, “I’m breezy!”

Then there are instances 4–6. These are much, much worse, because here I’m minimizing my own contributions. Why not say, “Here are a few edits to make this article more concise.” After all, that’s what I really mean.

Part of this comes from the culture of the firm I work at. We’re all very polite and gracious and considerate of others’ feelings. But just because we wouldn’t say, “Wow. That’s really terrible. Lucky for you I’m here to turn that into something resembling the writing of a college-educated professional,” that doesn’t mean I should suppress my opinions — opinions that come from 16 years of experience at Plante Moran.

Bottom line: that simple, four-letter word makes me sound tentative and undermines my contributions. It needs to stop. But you know what they say about old habits….

So what do you think? Do you use the word “just” in a similar manner? Do you see others doing it? Do you think it’s a gender thing? (I’ve noticed women tend to do it more than men.) Also, it’s been a while since I had any comments on this blog. “Just” throwing it out there that it’d be great if you’d leave one. I’m breezy!

Word of the Week: Breezy
Song of the Week: “Just,” Radiohead

Faster, Stronger, Further, Farther

It’s like the universe is speaking to me. First, my husband asked me to explain the difference between “further” and “farther.” Then I had a dream that a PMer called me out for using one incorrectly. (It was actually more of a nightmare.) The next day, I saw a grammarly.com post on Facebook that had a brief blurb about it. Finally, today, a vendor used “farther” on a conference call, and I spent the next minute thinking about whether or not he’d used it properly instead of focusing on his update. (Grammar can be so distracting.)

So instead of sticking to my editorial calendar—I should be writing about our overuse of the word “just”—I give you this, a brief treatise on “further” vs. “farther.”

According to “Webster’s Dictionary,” “further” means “to or at a more distant place in time” or “to a greater degree or extent.” “Farther” means “at or to a greater distance or more advanced point.”

While the terms are similar, “farther” refers to physical distances, while “further” is more figurative. Consider these examples:

  • “Parking farther away will ensure that PMers are safe from my poor driving skills.” In that sentence, I’m clearly talking about distance, so “farther” is the correct term to use.
  • “I further annoyed the police by speeding out of Camp Dearborn a mere four hours after speeding into it.” Here the use of “further” is more figurative versus literal.

Sometimes, however, the distinction isn’t so clear. Consider: “I made it farther/further into “Infinite Jest” than she did.” You could argue that I’m referring to the actual number of pages (farther) or the figurative distance within the storyline (further). What to do?

According to the experts, it’s fully acceptable to use the terms interchangeably when the distinction is unclear. This means you have permission to do whatever you want—a rarity when it comes to grammar.

So there you have it. Come back next time for a brief essay on why I’m trying to stop using the word “just”—unless the universe intervenes once again.

Something tells me it’s got better things to do.

Word of the Week: Treatise
Song of the Week: “Further,” by VNV Nation


Dashes: The Long and the Short of Them

The em dash (—) is my favorite punctuation mark. It’s just so versatile. It emphasizes. It separates. It interrupts. What more could you want from a punctuation mark?

Turns out, not everyone feels the way I do. A friend of mine recently suggested that we abandon the em dash in favor of the en dash (–) because “the em dash takes up too much space.”

It’s true. The em dash takes up more space, but sometimes you need that space. And it’s not as if the uses overlap. There are clear distinctions between the em dash and en dash. Here’s the long and the short of it.

The em dash
The em dash has a number of uses. The reason I love it so much—and you can look at any example of my writing and find evidence of this—is because it allows an additional thought to be added within an otherwise complete sentence. See what I did there? I provided an example smack dab in the middle of my explanation. Talk about economy of words.

It can also provide emphasis at the end of a sentence—like I’m doing right here. Finally, it serves as a substitute for interrupted dialogue. For example:

“I wasn’t trying to imply the em dash was unnecessary—”
“Yet you did.”

The en dash
En dashes have one main use: connecting items in a range. Here are a few examples:

  • The interview with Jim Martin is in the May–June issue of Pumpkin Grower magazine.
  • You can find it on pages 22–25.
  • It’s hard to believe he was the guitarist in Faith No More from 1983–1993.

But what about the hyphen?
It seems wrong, somehow, to omit the hyphen (-). However, it’s not really germane to this conversation, and it’s a complicated mark, deserving its own article. For now, let’s just acknowledge that it should never be used interchangeably with either the em dash or the en dash.

One more thing…
It occurred to me that some people may not know how to signify em and en dashes in Word. For the em dash, simply hold down the “Alt” key and type “0151.” For the en dash, hold down the “Alt” key, and type “0150.”

So how about you? Do you discern between em and en dashes? Why or why not? And how do you feel about the word “utilize”? Spoiler alert: I hate it.

See you next time!

Word of the Week: Germane
Song of the Week: 100 Yard Dash, by Raphael Saadiq

Judgment-Free Zone

Every couple of months or so, a spelling quiz will make the rounds on Facebook. You know the kind:

Which of these is correct?

  1. Acommodate
  2. Accommodate
  3. Accomodate
  4. Accommoddate

I like these quizzes. They remind me of spelling bees back in grade school which, despite never actually winning (damn you, “supercilious!”), I thoroughly enjoyed. I was making my way through one of these, recently, when I came upon this:

Which of these is correct?

  1. Judgement
  2. Judgemint
  3. Judgment
  4. Judgmint

Today’s Mindy confidently selected “3.” But the Mindy of yesteryear once insisted superciliously—and, rather embarrassingly—that the answer was “1.”

I was temping as a secretary—one of the many jobs I had while in college—at a law firm. The paralegal asked me to type up a letter that required me to use the word “judgment” several times. I developed what I considered to be the “Moby Dick” of letters—it may, I thought, have been the single best letter ever to grace the offices of that particular law firm—and I was still mentally congratulating myself when the paralegal came over to me with the word “judgement” circled several times in red.

I don’t remember how the conversation went, exactly, but I do know that I proceeded to make an ass out of myself. “I know how to spell ‘judgement,’” I likely announced. “How could I be a 20-year-old English major and not know how to spell ‘judgement’?”

But when the paralegal returned a few minutes later with a dictionary, all that vehemence and self-righteousness dissipated, along with a little piece of my dignity. Turns out, “judgement” is a “variant spelling” of the preferred word, “judgment.” (Unless you’re in England. Which we weren’t.)

That day was a lesson in humility for me. Today, if someone disagrees with me on a grammar point, I look it up—even if I’m “certain” of the answer.

So how about you? Have you ever been so certain of something that you argued passionately and loudly for your point of view, only to realize you were wrong? Share your story!

Word of the Week: Supercilious
Song of the Week: “The Judgement,” by Elvis Costello (he’s English, so it’s okay)