Significant, substantial, meaningful: words to avoid

Tim Phillips’s analysis of press releases on Factiva shows a worrying trend. The number of press releases that contain the words ‘significant’, ‘substantial’, ‘meaningful’ and ‘unique’ in the same text has nearly trebled in the last seven years. Something should be done.

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I don’t really understand how writers get away with this. Journalists automatically discount hype. If anything, it has the opposite effect. No editor would let it escape into their paper anyway.

Jakob Nielsen has proved that de-hyping text (among other simple steps) can double readability. Carhenge – who knew?

I think it is because PRs are paid by effort expended not results achieved and their primary audience is not (as you might think) journalists and their readers, but their corporate masters who pay the bills.

Check out my article: 62 ways to improve your press releases. This is also a good chance to revisit the worst press release ever.

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13 Responses to Significant, substantial, meaningful: words to avoid

  1. Einat Adar March 11, 2010 at 5:17 pm #

    “their primary audience is not (as you might think) journalists and their readers, but their corporate masters who pay the bills.”
    Exactly.
    It happens too much, and not only in PR.

    Why do you think there is such a sharp rise from last year to this one?

    • Matthew Stibbe March 11, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

      I don’t know why there has been a big rise. I hypothesise that PRs are coming under more and more pressure as the effectiveness of traditional PR methods declines. The more attention people put on blogs, twitter, websites and multiple news outlets, the less chance they have to operate as a valve for information. Possibly this makes them more desparate and, hence, more hype words. Just a theory though.

  2. Gary McMahon March 12, 2010 at 1:23 am #

    Love this. In Australia our primary environmental legislation refers to “significant impact”. Note that significant isn’t defined and hence open to interpretation. Maybe our members of parliament (and their staff!) that draft these meaningless should read this blog.
    I can’t begin to explain the difficulty this has caused since 1999 when the law was passed!
    I know that wording legislation is difficult, but how about using “real” words that mean something or at least define what is meant by a “throw away” term.
    Cheers

    • Matthew Stibbe March 12, 2010 at 7:13 am #

      Thanks for showing that BS or, more technically, imprecision in writing has bigger consequences. Matthew

  3. Tristram Brelstaff March 12, 2010 at 7:32 am #

    The graph you show has been “hyped” a little by having its y-axis start at 0.05 rather than 0.00.
    .-= Tristram Brelstaff´s last blog ..Monads as Overloadable Semicolons =-.

    • Matthew Stibbe March 12, 2010 at 8:20 am #

      Ah, true! But the graph is Tim Phillips’s not mine. :)

      Which reminds me of the little ditty some wit composed about Charles II:

      “Here lies our sovereign lord the kind, whose word no man relies on. He never said foolish thing or ever did a wise one.”

      To which Charles replied: “It’s true but my words are my own whereas my deeds are my government’s.”

  4. Laura K. Cowan March 21, 2010 at 7:32 pm #

    Thanks for this post. I can also see this issue spreading to the media as a whole (more so than it already has) as news goes online because
    1) in online media space isn’t at such a premium. I had a managing editor who didn’t “believe in adjectives” because those were the least essential words in an article and the first to get the ax when the word count went too high. Hype often comes in the form of adjectives.
    2) with the rise of amateur journalism there is less practice of the traditional standard to try to sound objective. Hype is intrinsically biased.
    .-= Laura K. Cowan´s last blog ..How To Write a Good Plot =-.

    • Matthew Stibbe March 21, 2010 at 7:51 pm #

      Hi Laura, I agree about the rise of ‘amateur journalism’ but I think it’s more a case of ‘amateur writing’. Of course PR and marketing copy is going to be biased but the trick is to make it read as if it is not. The more hype that gets through, the less credible the copy appears. This is especially true because, of course, journalists who receive press releases are very cynical and very sophisticated consumers of written content. More than the general public, they are wary of being sold a pup in writing.

      • Laura K. Cowan March 21, 2010 at 10:42 pm #

        Agreed. I remember having a “discussion” with the PR rep for an auto manufacturer that had rounded up the horsepower numbers on their spec sheet in order to get a nice round number for marketing purposes. We had a policy to check the horsepower figures and print them exactly as they were. You can imagine their displeasure when we didn’t swallow the press release whole and print the pretty number they wanted us to. :)
        .-= Laura K. Cowan´s last blog ..How To Write a Good Plot =-.

  5. Rich August 19, 2012 at 6:14 am #

    Well, my take on “significant” and “substantial” is that the now-ubiquitous former usually is an unequivocal value judgment and therefore an editorialization (just how and to whom is the thing significant or, for that matter, “meaningful”?); “substantial,” on the other hand, merely denotes “substance” as opposed to, say, negligibility or irrelevance. In many, perhaps most cases, “substantial” would be a marginally less subjective and therefore preferable substitute for “significant,” adjectivally.

    Agreed that too many times “unique” is just a misused hyperbole rather than a denotation of one-of-a-kind-ness.

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