Rene Henry
Rene Henry

I recently received a publicity release with more jargon and buzz words than I can remember in my years working in public relations.

Three of the most overused words I keep seeing are “strategic,” “branding,” and “utilize.” Strategic and branding have become two of the buzz words of the 21st Century. When I see a story using them, I ask myself, what does this really mean? And why don’t people just say or write “use” instead of “utilize.” If you really want to stump someone, ask them to define the difference between the two words.

Reading news releases today reminds me of an article I read some 40 years ago that criticized and mocked people who used – not utilized - superfluous language. It suggested if someone wanted a buzz word to just simply create one by choosing one each from three columns that consisted of such generic terms as "total,"  "responsive," "digital," "transitional," "flexibility" and "content."

It won’t be long before I read about someone utilizing "total strategic branding" or "balanced digital programming"—or perhaps even "integrated generational capability."

Add to that the job titles being given to so many people today and you start to wonder if words really mean what they say.

Secretaries are a thing of the past. Now executive assistants work for the CEO and president. Some I have dealt with would more appropriately be titled a clerk-typist, provided the individual can type. And what about those people who tell you, “I work in the office of the president,” when they actually are in customer service and based hundreds or thousands of miles from the president and his headquarters.

Some of my other pet peeves are the repeated misuse of a score of words and writing or saying an event is a “first” annual or that a record is a “new” record.

We have people in PR and the media who have never seen the Associated Press Stylebook. I wonder where they learned journalism, or how to write when they use the U.S. Postal Service’s two capital letters for states instead of standard abbreviations. It gets worse when you consider grammar, and especially how often a radio or television anchor, reporter or news reader mispronounces a word or name.

I asked my friend Patrick Boyle for his thoughts. A former editor of the Pittsburgh Press, he is one of the best grammarians I have worked with and headed my media relations team when I worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. I remember when Pat brought me a news release edited by a Department of Justice lawyer. Pat marked more than a dozen errors in red. The lawyer demanded the article be sent to the media the way he wrote it, so we did, but with his name and a note to the editor to be sure and check for any grammar mistakes.

“Sadly, grammar (and even spelling) are hopelessly broken. This is largely the result of the Internet, and composition using only two thumbs on a pocket-sized computer," Boyle says. “In the age of social media and spell-check, proofreading is obsolete. Spell-check was designed to autocorrect spelling errors, but often inserts errors instead. On the other hand, free grammar and spell checkers are available online, and the best ones will even guard against plagiarism.”

“On the positive side, people communicate much more freely than they ever did, but everything is a convenience,” he adds. Type it and send it is the order of the day. The internet is a huge democracy of ideas where speed matters more than accuracy. 

As Pat reminded me, English is a living language and changing. We certainly no longer have “thee” and “thou” from Victorian times. But I’m not sure what has evolved today is for the best. I just wish those in PR and the media would say what they mean and mean what they say.  

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Rene A. Henry has authored 10 books and had a diversified career in public relations, sports marketing, housing and real estate, television and entertainment, federal service and association management. Many of his commentaries are posted on his website, www.renehenry.com.