Friday, March 12, 2010

Useless Phrases

Certain phrases add huge amounts of value. For example, "I know! We're not releasing the mutex in the finally!" is often a useful thing to say (assuming you're working with mutexes and try/catch/finally blocks). Other phrases don't have much value. Sometimes we're just speaking to fill the air, and that's both useless and makes us look kind of ill-prepared to actually make a contribution. Some examples:

Useless phrase: We're overthinking this.
Why it's useless: You're not offering a solution or a way to proceed. You're complaining.
Useful variation: Let's simplify this by going with X.

Useless phrase: Just get it done.
Why it's useless: Again, not a solution. A demand, and probably a silly one at that. There is an exception for this one where the non-doer is really an employee who spends more hours in a day on excuses than on actual work.
Useful variation: What are the barriers to doing X? Here's how we're going to work around each of them.

I'm on a mission to expunge useless phrases from my vocabulary. What other useless phrases do you know?


  1. "When you estimate to get it completely tested" ;)

  2. Nice post. Some thoughts and observations.

    Paraphrasing can make some useless phrases useful again. Por Ejemplo:

    BEFORE: "We're overthinking this."
    AFTER: "Are we overthinking this?"

    Also, the choice of phrases in this post seems indicative of a managerial context. If I were to say 'Just get it done' to a lateral line co-worker...well that would be just plain rude. And so would, "Let's simplify this by going with X' for that matter.

    Finally, these useless phrases seem to indicate that one is in the throes of a head-scratching debugging and/or problem modeling activity. This last paragraph may itself be useless, but I'm curious if you feel there may be a pattern to this? Do useless phrases become more prevalent as one is perplexed...grasping for words and meaning in a seemingly unintelligible task?

  3. Zach: It's true that many of these phrases can easily be seen as rather rude. "We're overthinking this." "No, we're actually thinking for once!" or "Just get it done" "Yeah, there's actually skill involved here."

    I think you're right that often these are an expression of frustration. Sometimes it's a schedule slip, sometimes a problem that currently appears intractable. More frustration, more unhelpful exclamations. My personal one is when I've slipped over the line into "please, please work" (and I really do know that my computer can't hear anything).