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Word to Avoid: “Suck”

Good business writing communicates. Great business writing gives readers something special: excitement, passion, big ideas, generosity, words and sentences that flow easily like water from the tap, magical combinations and surprises, exquisite precision.

The word suck offers nothing–no fireworks, no brilliance, no heart, no style.

Yet the word is appearing all over the Web:

–Designers Suck
–102 Ways to Make Your Blog Not Suck
–5 Reasons Committees Suck
–10 Reasons Why My Sites Suck
–Business Networking That Doesn’t Suck

I began thinking about the word suck this week when I clicked on a link to a professional event. The event was sponsored by a networking group whose tagline is "Business Networking That Doesn’t Suck." But does networking normally suck? I have never thought so. And if this networking group doesn’t "suck," what does it do? What makes it special?

It takes patience and effort to find the word that communicates perfectly. To me, suck is never that word.

Below I offer revisions of the "suck" titles, which I wrote without knowing the intent of the original writers. These rewrites took just a few minutes. Better writing would take longer.

–Six Things Designers Should Never Do
–102 Tips of the Best Blogs on Earth
–5 Ways Committees Suck Corporate Energy
–10 Reasons Why My Sites Don’t Sell
–Business Networking That Sizzles

A fine book on getting to the right word is Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite, published by Random House in 2005. His chapter titles indicate the book’s zesty language:

"How to Loot a Thesaurus" [Loot is a fine word, especially placed unexpectedly after "how to"]

"Words with Music and Sploosh" [Sploosh would wake any reader who’s nodding off]

"Intensifiers for the Feeble" [a happy juxtaposition: intense/feeble]

In Plotnick’s vivid chapter names, you will find not one suck. Even in the chapter "Edgy: Writing at the Nervy Limits" the word did not show up. Suck isn’t edgy–it’s vague and dull.

That’s my view of suck. Whether you are a defender or a foe of the word, I’d love to know what you think. Please comment.


Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

2 comments on “Word to Avoid: “Suck””

  • Thanks for relegating the word “suck” to the dung heap where it belongs. I teach elementary school students who use this word as though it means the same as “stinks” or “dissapoints me.” To me the word is only one letter away from “the F word” in terms of appropriateness in public discourse. I agree that the word has come to mean nothing, but my objection has to do with what it used to mean (and still connotes to me). As a person born in the 50s, I’ve seen this word evolve from a sexually loaded reference to one that most people use without regard for its derivation. I recently heard it thrown back and forth by several women sitting around a table at a Christian arts conference. If they thought about what it actually means – or meant – I think they would have to agree that “that sucks” is no more socially acceptable than “that pisses me off.”

  • Janice, thank you for your passionate, direct response. I loved the image of the raunchy conversation at the Christian arts conference. I had not even thought about the word’s sexual connotation. Thanks for the reminder.

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