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Seven Words and Phrases to Remove from Your Professional Vocabulary

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Via email, Over Zoom, and Face-to-Face—Words Matter

No one seeking career advancement intentionally sets out to tank his or her image. But unintentionally? The opportunities are endless.

Now more than ever, words matter, and below are 7 Words and Phrases That Make People Think Less of You Professionally, according to a recent article published in Inc. magazine. Not one of these items is offensive or shocking; however, this list is a solid reminder that not only do words matter, but that word choice matters …and it matters a great deal.

Bottom line: You need to be intentional in your business communications. Not every email has to sound like a symphony, but the wrong word can hit a sour note with the reader.

Employ mindful speaking in the workplace. Many of these words and phrases can flow in casual conversation, and you never know: your current team member could become your one-day boss. If years elapse in between, you want that person to have fond memories of your work performance.

Now, none of the below statements are career-ending, but they don’t scream “go-getter,” either…and some could come back to bite you. Without further ado...

1. "I can't."

Remember the grade-school grammar lesson of “can I” vs. “may I?”

Can you really not take on another project? Of course you can. However, would it require you to pull five all-nighters in a row to accommodate the request? You might want to say so.

Advice From Inc.: Most of the time, what you can or cannot do is a choice. Try replacing the negative, "I can't" with the positive, "How can I?" and see what changes.

2. "Very"

This is a word that adds almost zero meaning to any form of communication (more obvious in written communication). Example: “It was very hot outside.”  Removing “very” does not change the meaning.

Advice From Inc.: There are far more effective adjectives and modifiers that can be used in place of "very." Rather than say someone is very capable, describe them as skillful, or swap "very tired" for "exhausted."

3. "That's not my job."

Who even utters this phrase in a professional work environment? Apparently, people still do. 

Advice From Inc.: There is a time and place to push back, but does this phrase help anyone on either side of the question?The inherent problem with "that's not my job" is that it often implies a task is beneath you.

Even if you feel it is, consider a more productive response that contributes to accomplishing the intended goal. Something else to consider is that being asked to handle work that's outside your scope of responsibilities could lead to bigger opportunities down the line.

4. "I don't have time."

Advice From Inc..:News flash: everyone has the same amount of time in a day. Telling a co-worker, boss, or client that you don't have time for something is not only rude, but can cast an unflattering light on your time management skills. Alternative, more helpful things to say:

  • "Can we discuss this when I'm finished with the project I'm working on?"
  • "I'm all booked up today but tell me when you need this and I'll let you know if I can take care of it."

If the request is coming from above and your bandwidth is truly stretched, you can also present your current list of tasks and ask if there is something you should de-prioritize in order to accommodate the new ask.

5. "You'll have it soon."

The word “soon” is relative. And, since “soon” means different things to different people (and is not quantifiable), it is heavily subject to interpretation.

Advice From Inc.: Without hard deadlines, things often slip off the radar. Providing a firm date or time not only sets clear expectations, but it can also help keep you accountable. If you'd prefer more flexibility, commit to a window of time (e.g., "You'll have it Wednesday, Thursday at the latest).

6. "We should..."

Advice From Inc.: This usually implies kicking the can down the road. "We should" should only be used in conjunction with a definitive, time-boxed action item.

7. "I don't know."

Advice From Inc.: On its own, "I don't know" is a dead end. And while it's improved when followed by a commitment to finding an answer, a better approach is to provide the information you do know. It's the difference between, "I don't know when the shipment will arrive" and "The shipment was scheduled to arrive on Monday; I will follow up with the carrier for an updated and come back to you by the end of the day."


“Not all these words and phrases offend all people, of course; there are always contextual variables at play. But language is what we use to create and foster relationships. Being aware of, and thoughtful about how we use it and how it affects others can be a total game-changer.”

PSM Editorial Staff
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