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May 28, 2014

Starting Thought: Absolutely Avoiding Absolutes

A common verbal crutch that many people naturally reach for is speaking in absolutes.  You never use them?  Think again.

Absolutes are descriptors such as “always” and “never” or “none” and “everyone.”   There are situations where using an absolute tone can be effective, such as in Adam Silver’s announcement of the lifetime ban of Clipper’s Owner Donald Sterling.

“Effective immediately, I am banning Mr. Sterling for life from any association with the Clippers organization or the NBA. Mr. Sterling may not attend any NBA games or practices. He may not be present at any Clippers facility, and he may not participate in any business or player personnel decisions involving the team.”

In this case, the absolutes add emphasis and underscore the outrage Silver felt over Sterling’s insensitive comments.  However, in many other cases, absolutes should be avoided as they detract from the intended message and the speaker’s credibility.

Why Not to Use Absolutes

Seemingly simple language can generalize the topic in a way that makes the speaker appear uninformed, unprepared or naïve. Worst case, it can potentially offend the listener.  Simply put, avoid absolute words because they can:

  • Divert the listener’s focus from the topic at hand to finding the exceptions, often weakening important and well-informed points
  • Make an otherwise valid claim that can be interpreted as “no exceptions”
  • Raise doubts about the credibility of the speaker and their understanding of the topic

To be persuasive and influential, your communications should reflect a reality that’s accurate; situations are rarely black and white.

Here are words to avoid and the substitutes to consider:

Try to Avoid

Other Ways of Saying it


Uncommonly, Rarely, Infrequently, Under Few Conditions, In Rare Circumstances


Few, Little, Rare, A Small Number, Hardly Any


Not Really, Not Entirely, Not in the Slightest, By No Means


Most, A Good Amount, Many People, General Population, The Majority, All Inclusive, Multiple Segments,

Nobody/No one


Very Few, A Small Number


Usually, Frequently, Consistently, With  Few Exceptions, Routinely

Which absolutes do you use often and what words might you substitute?

David Grossman

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