The Right Words

On vacation last week, I came across a community billboard at a local gas station. Hidden among the ads for music lessons and used cars was an offer for ‘Designing Destiny’, a workshop taught by horses. But here’s the best part: It was all about ‘in-powerment’.

Now look, I’m not heartless. I could forgive ‘impowerment’, maybe even get on board with a hyphen if the writer really wasn’t sure. In-powerment, though, I just can’t reconcile. Fact is, we’re creatures of language. Written, spoken, sometimes crafted out of the bones of dead languages or created for the purpose of fiction. But regardless of origin or intent there’s a common theme: the right words make all the difference.

Harsh Truths

I know, I know. This isn’t politically correct. With text messages becoming the de-facto communication standard and the vast majority of us giving up punctuation in favor of acronyms and shared understanding, there’s a growing movement to let poor grammar pass, to let terrible (and hilarious) misspellings slip by with nary so much as a whisper.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t want to. Part of it is what I do for a living — I like to use the all the right words, all the time if I can. I fail miserably and often, but that doesn’t stop me trying. Part of the problem, though, is that so much of what I see is published online or was clearly designed using a word-processing program. A quick Google search and guess what, you’ve got an answer. That word you think is right? It isn’t.

Context Aware

Beyond the ‘in-powerment’ problem is one of context. Too many writers now rely on slang where it isn’t appropriate or try (and fail) to use four-dollar words when a 50-cent version does the trick. It seems we’ve lost our sense of what fits and what doesn’t, what’s used to communicate professionally and what stays among friends.

To some extent, this is a boon. It allows for a flexibility in business copy and marketing speak that’s sorely needed, and can in some cases trickle down to those havens of poor grammar and ill-advised context, social media sites. But in large part context unawareness results in a kind of discordance, a sense of something being out of place or out of time. It’s jarring. It’s unnecessary. But is it inevitable?


In a word, yes. Probably. Languages change over time, the meaning of words shifts and moves as they’re applied in different ways. But now we’re seeing a revolution in how people communicate, which has a direct impact on what they have to say. The result? Horse in-powerment sessions and LOLs where no laughing, let alone ‘out loud’ takes place.

As a freelancer, this is a strange kind of good news. Language snobs are rapidly vanishing as websites see the need for content and try to fill the void as fast as possible. This means the talented few, those who still conform to the notions of right words and appropriate settings have a kind of shrinking gift, and a better-than-average chance to stand out in a crowd.

Or least become in-powered.

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