Great Is Not So Great

I began reading an article by a university president about the school he leads. In the first paragraph, this is what I learned about the university: 

Most of you know and appreciate what a great university this is, with a great faculty, great programs, great traditions, and a great reputation. And as great as our university has been. . . . 

That university sounds pretty great, huh? 

No, it sounds mediocre. The university president himself could not think of words beyond the bland and meaningless great to describe the school he leads. 

I'm guessing, though, that it's not the university's fault that all the president came up with was 6 greats in 32 words. I bet the president simply didn't schedule time to write his article, and the copyeditors did not pitch in to save him. 

Let's do it for him. Take a couple of minutes to fill in the blanks below, using a university you know well as your subject. You can use the word great only once if you choose to. But all the other words need to be more descriptive. Do not completely revise the passage. The point is to use different adjectives.

When you finish your description, paste it into the comments so we can compare our work. 


Most of you know and appreciate what a _____ university this is, with a _____ faculty, _____ programs, _____ traditions, and a _____ reputation. And as _____ as our university has been. . . . 




Does your university sound like the one I described below? It shouldn't. If we have chosen our adjectives well, we should be able to tell that we are describing two different schools. 

Most of you know and appreciate what a special university this is, with a caring faculty, flexible programs, quirky traditions, and a well-earned reputation. And as exceptional as our university has been. . . . 


Here's another university I considered:

Most of you know and appreciate what an extraordinary university this is, with a legendary faculty, visionary programs, cherished traditions, and a world-class reputation. And as outstanding as our university has been. . . . 

To get over the problem of everything being great (and therefore ordinary), think carefully about your subject. How is it different from others in its group? Then describe what you know. Unfortunately, the university president sounded as though he did not know the university at all. 

Of course, you could throw out the president's original wording, freeing yourself to create something fresh and distinctive. 

Take your writing beyond great. Go a day without writing that word. I'll join you in the challenge. 

Please do share your example in the comments. I look forward to reading it. 

Syntax Training  



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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.


  1. Great, Lynn. 🙂

    Seriously, the contrasting rewrites show the value of precise word choice. They demonstrate exactly what you said: that the university president looked like he didn’t know his own university.

  2. Most of you know and appreciate what an excellent university this is, with a diverse faculty, well-rounded programs, unique traditions, and a stellar reputation. And as exceptional as our university has been. . . .

  3. Rae-Ann, thanks for that clever point. I was thinking about whether this topic falls under both creative and business writing. Indeed it does. The president’s article included a pitch for financial contributions. He needed better editorial support to make his pitch more specific and meaningful.


  4. Most of you know and appreciate what a world-class university this is, with an esteemed faculty, in-demand programs, strong traditions, and a stellar reputation. And as outstanding as our university has been. . . .

  5. Most of you know and appreciate what a unique university this is, with expert faculty, multifaceted programs, time-honored traditions, and a long-standing reputation. And as acclaimed as our university has been…

  6. Most of you know and appreciate what a welcoming university this is, with a top-rate faculty, sought out programs, deep traditions, and a stellar reputation. And as great as our university has been. . . .

  7. If this article was a pitch for contributions from supporters, the president missed the most important thing about writing: know your audience!

    I believe it would be more effective directed more personally to the reader. “YOU support a world-class university with a top faculty, etc.” I believe people are more likely to contribute money when they feel emotionally invested.

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed reading all of the examples listed. Each time I read this blog, I learn something. Thank you!

  9. Most of you know and appreciate what an exceptional university this is, with a distinguished faculty, innovative programs, robust traditions, and an enviable reputation. And as remarkable as our university has been. . . .

  10. Hello Senna, Mimi, Laura, Tamara, and Kathi,

    Thanks for your comments!

    Senna, “great” is the first word we think of, isn’t it? That’s why I’m suggesting the 24-hour great-free challenge. I’m glad you found the piece helpful.

    Mimi, I like your “deep traditions.” I had not thought of that one, and it works perfectly. Something I’d like you to think about is your first adjective, “welcoming.” Because it has the primary place in the sentence, the other adjectives should echo it, at least somewhat. It’s not quite the right lead-in for what follows, but it’s a good, specific adjective on its own.

    Laura, I agree. The all-important emotional appeal was missing in the piece. I think the president was trying to be low key, but his message came across as bland.

    Tamara, I always appreciate your thoughtful words.

    Kathi, those are powerful, consistent adjectives, creating a strong opening sentence for the president’s article. Thanks for sharing them.


  11. Most of you know and appreciate what a _great____ university this is, with a _highly qualified____ faculty, _diverse____ programs, _solid____ traditions, and an _untarnished____ reputation. And as _awesome____ as our university has been. . . .

  12. Absolutely enjoyed this !Just yesterday I received a “great”for something I had done and I went huh!:)

  13. This is my try.

    Most of you know and appreciate what a renowned university this is, with a modern faculty, appealing programs, strong traditions, and a high reputation. And as prestigious as our university has been. . . .

    How did I go? I’m afraid it sounds a bit pretentious but in my defense I don’t know any actual university and English is a second language to me. So I thought most of the words in my language first and then looked for the best translation on various resources.

  14. Hi Debby,

    You made some good word choices. “Renowned university,” “appealing programs,” and “strong traditions” make sense.

    “Modern faculty” is not good phrasing. “Modern” is not typically applied to groups of people. Yes, you can say “modern woman” or “modern building,” but “modern faculty” is not common usage.

    “High reputation” is also not typical. Note some of the other words people used.

    Good luck with your work learning English!


  15. Thanks for reviewing my text! Choosing the right adjective is one of the hardest parts of learning a foreign language. I whish there was a vocabulary that paired nouns with adjectives!

  16. Debby, that vocabulary sounds like an excellent idea. For learning Spanish, I use an online dictionary called Span¡shD!ct (and Duolingo). I always read the sample sentences to determine which words work together for native speakers.



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