Big, Thing, A lot, Very, overuse of the verb ‘to be’
Sort of a sadistic thing to do to a bunch of kids, right? Sure. Also perhaps the best writing lesson I ever received.
By taking vague, wishy-wash words off the table, the verboten words list challenged us to observe and write about the world in a more specific way. Changing the way we described the world and related ideas also changed the way we saw the world.
I thought about my teacher and the verboten words list recently because I undertook a language experiment. I made a new verboten words list. Instead of applying it just to writing, I applied it to any kind of communication. Here it is:
Should, Stupid / idiot, Have to
That’s it. Short list. Each word has a specific reason behind its inclusion.
Using the word should immediately implies that what is currently happening is wrong, not enough, and need fixing. If I say ‘I should write a blog post today,’ I’m denigrating myself for not currently writing the blog post. If only I were writing that post, I wouldn’t feel so inadequate! Instead, I could just say ‘I’m going to write a blog post today.’ Easy fix!
There’s a fair bit of research about the negative impact of calling kids stupid. Over time, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The same holds true of adults: if we call ourselves ‘stupid’ enough times, we’ll start to believe it and simply not apply ourselves to complex, demanding tasks. Taking the word out of play opens up new possibilities. ‘I can’t believe I missed that, I’m so stupid’ becomes ‘I missed that. I’ll look out for it next time’
Have to connotes a forced march. There are absolutely times when we ‘have to’ do things like pay taxes or show up to court. But applying the phrase to daily chores or tasks implies that there is some external force acting on us; it puts us in a victim role and strips us of power. For example, ‘I have to fold my laundry’ isn’t really a true statement. ‘I want to fold my laundry so that my girlfriend thinks I have my sh&t together’ might be more true.
Like my teacher’s verboten words list, this one has changed the way I relate to the world pretty quickly. If nothing else, it has made me much more aware of the language I use and how that language not only reflects, but also creates my reality.
So here’s an invitation: make a verboten words list of your own (or just use the one above) and start to notice what happens when you change your language. My guess is that your world will change a bit, too. Let me know how it goes!
For more on how language creates our reality, check out this TEDx talk by Chalmers Brothers, author of 'Language and the Pursuit of Happiness.'