New words that pop up in our language might sound catchy, but they also can create a bad impression.


Dozens, if not hundreds, of new words are accepted into English every year, because it’s a living language; it’s evolving. But in the interests of good clear business writing and a professional image, be selective about which words you adopt.

In a Bloomberg News article this week, the writer made a reference to “the ask” in a business document. And a finance executive wrote in his newsletter about the regulatory “builds” that are going on in bank stress testing. What is an “ask”? And how about a “build”?

Rather than opting for something trendy, say what you mean. Plain, familiar words are more specific and thus more helpful to the reader, and they make you sound more authentic. “Ask” is a verb, and if you need a noun for that action, it’s a “request.” Those words continue to serve us well after centuries of use. In the case of the “build,” the executive was actually referring to increased regulation, so why not call it that?

Since the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, Americans who show up Monday mornings facing a bloated inbox say they are under a tsunami of email. And every turning point in a process or an ongoing story is now called a tipping point, a term that you almost never heard before Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book, “The Tipping Point.”

The problem is that, as with many words, once you begin to use them to describe various events and concepts, their original definition becomes stretched to the point where the word could mean five different things, and the reader or listener does not  know what you mean. In business, our job is not to create ambiguity. Readers don’t have time to decipher your meaning.

An internal newsletter at the Wall Street Journal cautions writers against using new words that are coined in the corporate world. Just because you see or hear a word that seems to be catching on, resist the urge to weave it into your everyday vocabulary until it has established itself.

If you want to bring your stories and articles alive, join us for this webinar where former AP writers Ken O’Quinn and Nancy Shulins, a two-time Pulitzer nominee, will offer tips to engage readers in an era of shrinking attention spans.

Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available here at

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