- On August 12, 2015
When the Eagles rock band learned it was among this year’s Kennedy Center honorees, the group’s musicians issued a statement saying they were truly humbled. A school that surpassed its fund-raising goal said the sum was a true testament to the incomparable educational experience it offers. A company I patronize claims it’s truly in the people business.
Might we have thought the Eagles were insincerely humbled by the honor? Could the annual fund be construed as inauthentic evidence of the school’s excellence? And is the company more deeply in the people business than other companies because it’s truly in it?
I’d say the answer to those questions is “No.” We tend to overuse true and truly for emphasis—perhaps because we live in an age of such hype—and in so doing, we diminish the impact of words that define one of life’s most important qualities.
Likewise, we often use incredible and incredibly—which means unbelievable—in much the same way. The social media company Hootsuite says it’s “incredibly excited” to announce its partnership with Instagram. Excited or pleased would do. Ariana Huffington writes that HuffPost’s new CEO “brings an incredible range of experience to the role.” Should we doubt his qualifications? An obituary describes the deceased as “incredibly caring and giving.” And while I don’t want to pick on dead people, how many times have you heard them described as true heroes? I don’t know about you, but dead or alive I want to be described simply as a hero, and as caring and giving. No embellishments necessary.
Sometimes these words can work. Here are two cases where I think they do:
• “My mom was a nurse who gave up her career to raise us. And my dad was enormously influential. He grew up in Appalachia, truly in poverty, and became this remarkable guy—a real Horatio Alger who worked harder than anybody.”
That’s how a chief executive described his upbringing in an interview with The New York Times. Because people can have different takes on what constitutes poverty, I think truly works to underscore how far this man’s father got. That said, “He grew up in Appalachia, in deep poverty” would be even better.
• Other than Xbox, the company hasn’t had a true hit in a long time.
True works here because it dismisses products that may have been positioned as hits but in reality were not, for one reason or another.
So my message is to use these words deliberately and judiciously. Otherwise they’re kind of like litter. Get rid of them.