It was my mother who first outlawed certain words from my vocabulary. The ones I remember are “but,” “have to” and “should.” Later in life, I took some courses that added “try” and “can’t” to the list (Yoda would approve). Most recently, “just” joined the ranks of words to avoid.

I may have been in the minority ten years ago as someone with hyper-awareness of how certain small words affect our messaging. But more recently, I’ve encountered more people who pay attention to the implications that subtle turns of phrase have on our meaning.

Let’s take a look at the impact of each of these words—and at alternative ways to express ourselves.

1. But (Say “and” or “while” instead!)

If you start paying attention to how often you use the word “but,” you might be surprised. Often the word is completely unnecessary and what you really mean is “and”!

For instance, one of my writers wrote the following:

I wanted to make sure that the client’s profile was succinct but clearly revealed his differentiating qualities.

I notice that people frequently default to “but” in situations like this, where they want to say something was “short but sweet” or something along those lines. Why say “but”? Who says that being short implies “not sweet”? Who says that a profile’s being “succinct” implies that it doesn’t reveal a client’s differentiating qualities?

Instead, how about this:

I wanted to make sure that the client’s profile was succinct while clearly revealing his differentiating qualities.

In this second sentence, the challenge of creating a profile that includes the client’s differentiating qualities is laid out in a positive light and does not imply a succinct profile could not reveal those qualities. It’s a subtle difference, and a significant one.

I was pleased to discover that a Stanford University professor, Bernard Roth, has taken up the cause to substitute “but” with “and.” See A Stanford professor says eliminating 2 phrases from you vocabulary can make you more successful. As he explains, “When you use the word but, you create a conflict (and sometimes a reason) for yourself that does not really exist.” … whereas when you use the word and, “your brain gets to consider how it can deal with both parts of the sentence.”

Take the following sentence:

I want to go to the movies, but I have to study.

vs this one:

I want to go to the movies, and I have studying to do.

Changing “but” to “and” trains the brain to come up with win-win solutions, rather than creating a state of victimhood.

2. Have to (Say “going to” or “want to” instead)

The movie vs. studying example above highlights another phrase that does not serve us: “Have to.” Professor Roth suggests substituting “want to.” I like substituting “going to.” Let’s take a look at the sentence above again, with the word “and” substituted for “but”:

I want to go to the movies, and I have to study.

(This still sounds fairly catastrophic.)

What about these options:

I want to go to the movies, and nevertheless I am going to study.

(Suddenly this person has choice in the matter!)

It would probably be pushing it to say “I want to go to the movies, and I want to study.” That might not be completely honest. But it’s a sentiment to try on.

3. Try (There is no “try”)

There’s a difference between trying something as an experiment (see my above suggestion to try something on or try something out) and saying you’ll try to do something when what you really mean is you don’t think you’ll succeed. Trying is lying. Trying is not doing. I can try all I want to write a blog article every Sunday. That doesn’t get me to writing a blog article every week. It gets me going out with friends on Sunday nights while I’m busy “trying”—and while my blog remains blank.

We use the “try” word when we want to weasel out of things, whether they are commitments to ourselves or others. Saying you’ll “try” is pretending to say “yes” when you mean “probably not.” Stop it. Instead, choose the actions you are willing to take. Say “I will do x, y and z.” Or say you aren’t going to do it.

There is no “try.”

4. Should (Don’t “should” on yourself or on others)

“Should” is a close relative to “have to.” It’s a moral judgment that often leads to a whole lot of trying. Do you think you “should” go to the doctor? “Should” go to the gym? “Should” apologize to someone you love? Or do you think someone in your life “should” do something and are you telling them so? How’s that working for you? Take this example:

You should stop eating so much sugar, honey. You’ll make yourself sick!


I want you to eat less sugar, honey. I’m so scared you’ll get sick.

(The “you” in this sentence could be yourself or someone else.) To me, the second version is much more vulnerable and scary to say. It’s less judgmental. If I’m saying it to myself, it’s actually sweet and caring. And although it could produce defensiveness, it’s less likely to do so than the version that takes a moral high ground and tries to control someone’s behavior.

Some of us “should” on ourselves even more than we “should” on others. Take a look at how you’re putting yourself down with that sentiment, and how you use “should” to let yourself off the hook instead of committing to something.

5. Can’t (I think I can!)

This one is basic. “Can’t” is a disempowering word that leads to a lot of inaction. Instead of “can’t,” be curious about how you can. Look for other options than the one or two you are considering. Get coaching. Read The Little Engine That Could for inspiration. Get creative! As a friend and I often say to each other, the only 100% reliable way to reach a goal is not to stop until you accomplish it! And if you choose a different goal along the way, that’s okay too.

6. Just (I called to say “I love you.”)

The word “just” diminishes what we say after it. Calling to say “I love you” is a big deal right? Why make it smaller, as the famous song does, with “just”? I was unaware until about a year ago of how much I qualify my sentences with the word “just.” Common usages could be “I just wanted you to know that…” or “I just feel like…” or “I just thought…”

If you start paying attention, you might be surprised at the frequency of the word “just” in your vocabulary. See what happens if you delete it. Your communications might become more truthful and riskier. You might start to claim your feelings, opinions and choices in a new way.

Did you learn something from this article about your language? Did you try eliminating any of the recommended words? Are there more words that you recommend banishing from our vocabularies? Please share!


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