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Why You Should Never Use Absolutes

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There's nothing worse than sentences that begin, "There's nothing worse than..."

Unless, of course, you're being ironic to illustrate a point; then it's acceptable. Quite brilliant, actually.

In the frenzy to be heard above the online cacophony, many writers resort to absolutes. Rather than strengthening their message, though, such abuses weaken their credibility -- and that's never good.

Here are some absolutes that writers should avoid. (That's avoid, not ban.) Come to think of it, this advice doesn't apply simply to writers. In an oral presentation or even in meaningful conversation, you're probably better off not painting yourself into a linguistic corner.

Always/never (ever). These two provide a good starting point -- not the best, perhaps, but good enough -- for our discussion. Face it, 999,999 times out of a million is a lot, but it's not always. Adverbs such as almost, nearly, or even seemingly, can alloy these terms, which can otherwise be perceived as bellicose or accusatory. "You always..." or, "You never..."

This is a tenet of workplace courtesy, too. "You never sent me that email, Mavis," presupposes that Mavis screwed up or didn't bother. Try instead, "I don't see that email in my inbox, Mavis; please re-send it." Tone is everything. (Well, almost everything.)

One might argue that the sun always rises in the east. An astrophysicist might confidently counter that the sun never rises in the east; it stays put, and Earth does the moving. (This essay is, of course, all about quibbling.)

One variation of always is invariably. Tempering that and its cousins seems wise, too.

Best/worst. Often when we use these or other superlative forms (those that usually boast an -est ending), it's a matter of opinion or hyperbole: "Best coffee in town!" or, "That was the worst rendition of 'Afternoon Delight' ever," or, "He is the smarmiest politician in the country."

It can be used to comedic effect, of course. Here's a quote (not mangled, I hope) from George Carlin: "Somewhere in the world is the world's worst doctor. And what's truly terrifying is that someone has an appointment with him tomorrow morning."

I quote someone with whom I have worked as saying, "She exaggerates more than anyone else in history." I'm thinking of having that made into a sampler for the wall of my office.

Anytime (vs. often or sometimes). Anytime you use this word, it conveys the sense of every time. Clearly, that's not the case, though as used in that first sentence, it does carry that implication. Use it sparingly in that way.

Thanks, you say? Anytime.

First/last/ultimate. The first of anything is a milestone. What the first milestone was, I have no idea. In any case, historic "firsts" can be suspect. The first manned flight was achieved by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk.

Or so we think. Maybe the Vikings had one. Maybe it was breathtaking -- until old Vlor Njorddsson flew his machine off the edge of the Earth and his buddies decided to stick with boats, thank you very much.

The last of anything is hard to verify. Did you know, for instance, that the Last of the Mohicans was actually a guy named Jerry? He ran a coffee shop in Altoona, Pa. Little-known fact. You see, one unknown instance of the supposedly last thing might crop up somewhere. Even in Altoona. By the way, Jerry was the first guy ever to put up a sign reading: "Best coffee in town!" You could look it up.

Ultimate means last, of course, but the former has been made into something grandiose. Some people go it one better (or lesser, actually) by using penultimate. They think that means extra-ultimate; it means next-to-last. (I probably should have saved this entry for nearer the end of the article.)

Definite(ly). "I will definitely be there Friday." Come hell or high water. Or a traffic jam, transit strike, or locusts. Or a better offer.

Temper your certainty: "I have my tickets," or, "I have it on my calendar -- looking forward to it."

Can't/won't/shouldn't. Circumstances mitigate these verbs. Of course, some circumstances warrant these verbs, too. "I can't/won't/shouldn't put my elbow in my mouth." Just make sure (or as sure as possible) that these terms are warranted.

"I can't drink vodka." Yeah, I bet you could if you tried. The results might not be pretty, but you could open your yap, pour it in, and swallow, I'm guessing. Maybe if it were Absolut...

Nothing/everything. "There's nothing worse than..." (This harkens back to the best/worst entry. It says, in effect, the worst thing in the world is X.)

Nothing is worse than a muffed PowerPoint? Really? Leprosy? How about that? Losing your home or business in a fire? I could go on, but there's nothing worse than beating a dead horse. Except beating a live one; that's much worse. (I like horses.)

It's easy enough to provide perspective: "When giving a PowerPoint presentation, there are few things more distracting than..." and then insert your glitch of choice -- an upside-down slide, a zombie apocalypse, whatever.

This, of course, is the full gamut of absolute terms -- the alpha-to-omega compendium -- so please leave your contributions in the comments section.

This article originally ran on Ragan.com.