Doubling words doesn’t make them twice as good

by Halina St James

I was in seventh heaven the other day, getting a little TLC for my nails, when my manicurist Colleen Moore launched into a wonderful rant.

I love my sessions with Colleen. She’s not just a great manicurist; she’s a smart business owner, well-connected with her community, and a great observer of human behaviour.

Her rant was based on her belief that people are getting lazy with their language. In particular, she’s noticed that people are doubling up on words – instead of using an adverbial or adjectival phrase to give emphasis.

  • Example 1: Colleen says she was watching a fashion show on TV when the host talked about say clothes not needing to be “matchy matchy”.
  • Example 2: A friend of hers bought an new bike and was describing  the size of the tires.  The tires were narrow. “Not narrow narrow, but narrow”, said the friend. Colleen’s point was that ‘not narrow narrow’ isn’t precise. What does “narrow, narrow” really mean? Are we talking a shade less than mountain-bike-chunky – or racing-bike-thin?
  • Example 3: A popular radio host always says he’s “good, good”. How good is that? Is it really good? Or twice as good? (Which is dangerously close to the Orwellian 1984 world of ‘double plus good’).

In his book 1984 George Orwell created a fictional language, Newspeak. The aim of Newspeak was to remove all shades of meaning from language, to minimise the danger of individual thought in a totalitarian state.

Colleen was suggesting nothing that sinister: just that doubling of words is lazy. And it doesn’t give the listener the full meaning that you intended. The degree of matching, or the size of the tires, or the wellbeing of the radio host are left to personal interpretation.

At Podium Coaching we do a lot of work with people who have to deliver a precise message in a speech, a media interview or in copy. Whether it’s a presentation skills, media skills or writing workshop, we encourage clients to express themselves simply and clearly.

And the easiest way to do that is to use specifics rather than generalisations. When you are promoting a product or service, don’t fall back on adjectives and hyperbole.

For one thing, that’s what everyone else does. We’re so used to seeing the puffed-up phrases that we simply doesn’t believe the claims.

Secondly, adjectives and adverbs are imprecise. How big is big? Is ‘huge’ bigger or smaller than ‘enormous’?

You could tell an audience that Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is fast, or very fast, or blisteringly fast.

Or you could tell them when he runs he covers 12 meters every second.

And that’s a lot more jaw-dropping than fast-fast.

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