It was so subtle, I almost missed it…
But, still, it was right there. Lingering. Making my daughter feel worse about herself, without her really getting why.
A few minutes earlier, she’d been deep into the process of creation, her friend at her side. Two 7-year old girls drawing, decorating, pouring their hearts onto paper and pastels. Pronouncing she was done, my daughter turned to her friend, looking for approval. But, what came out of her friend’s mouth was…
“Actually, that’s really pretty.”
Compliment? Or underhanded dig? My daughter wasn’t sure how to respond. Here’s why. It’s the word “actually” that’s the problem. Without it in the sentence, it’s clearly a compliment, everyone’s happy. But, add that single word and the compliment turns just a bit evil.
The word “actually” implies a sense of surprise, an understanding that what comes next is not expected. In this sentence, it translates to…
“Wow, usually what you do it pretty ugly, but…”
Most people don’t think about language like this. The words pretty much tumble out of our mouths or onto the keyboard with the goal of just getting our messages across in some reasonably clear way.
But, fact is, language matters. It really, really matters. Every word counts.
It’s the reason speechwriters, copywriters, terminologists and authors have jobs. Because the slightest addition or deletion of a single word or turn of a phrase can profoundly alter the meaning and impact of a sentence. And, that’s true, whether it’s delivered in print or in person.
Think I’m being overdramatic?
Let’s stick with the current example, the impact of the word “actually,” add or delete it from a few grown-up sentences and see how you feel about them:
- Those jeans actually look good on you.
- She actually gave the job to Jones
- I actually like you, too.
- You actually don’t look fat.
- That dinner was actually really good.
One word is the difference between getting slapped and getting hugged.
When I’m writing marketing copy, I’ll craft every word and phrase to create a very specific psychological effect, from cultivating anger to triggering a decision to buy. And, it’s not uncommon for the change of a single word of phrase to double response rate.
Words actually matter.
So, am I just being a linguistic prima donna?
Or, is there something to this? Ever been on the other side of a comment like the ones above? Ever unintentionally let something offensive fly? What other words work in a similar way?
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