An American Editor

September 10, 2021

On the Basics: Rethinking language usages

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:36 am

© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

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For years, I’ve been urging aspiring freelancers to budget for health insurance even if they’re young and fit because “you never know when you might step off the curb and get hit by a bus.” I never meant it flippantly, although it might have come across that way. Today I learned that a valued colleague has died in just such a horrible way. I don’t think I can ever use that language again.

When I mentioned this in a Facebook group for editors, several colleagues brought up other usages that we might all want to rethink, or think about carefully before using. We’re in an era of increasing awareness of language (and behavior) that can be seen as insulting, insensitive, racist, sexist, exclusive and otherwise damaging — that can trigger trauma on all kinds of levels. These instances may be less so, but still can create trauma at worst and discomfort at best. We probably can’t always avoid upsetting someone, no matter how carefully we choose our words, but we can aim to avoid clichés or our own frequent phrases that might be painful for others to see or hear. 

Personal perspectives

Probably like many of us, I’ve had my own experiences with incidents that make me more careful about how I describe events, possibilities and even people. I broke a leg after tripping — over something I never even saw — on a casual walk (as opposed to a challenging hike or climb) and falling the wrong way. I dislocated an elbow and tore up ligaments and tendons in falling off a stage prop as I backed up to take photos at an event. Both experiences make me careful about how I refer to other people’s accidents, such as not calling anyone (including myself) a klutz or clumsy, or trivializing an injury or event.

When I was in grad school, I was walking to class one day when I realized that someone might be about to jump off a pedestrian bridge over a major intersection, and I tried to get him to stop and talk to me. He jumped anyhow and died of his injuries. Ever since, I’ve been super-sensitive to any references to suicide in general and jumping off a bridge in particular.

Language to assess before using

As colleagues said in response to my Facebook post: “We never know what might bring up negative emotions for someone else” and “‘Know better do better’ applies to our lived experiences and unfolding improved awareness of language …”

With that in mind, wording or imagery to think about carefully before using would be:

• Hit by a train, streetcar, bus, car

• “I feel like I’ve been hit by a Mack truck” to describe feeling sick

“Drink the Kool-Aid” to refer to company culture (because hundreds of followers of cult leader Jim Jones actually drank poisoned Kool-Aid at his order, and died.)

• Putting a gun to your head

• To die for

• Jump off a bridge

• A verbal or writing tic

• The worst thing to do/that can happen; There’s nothing worse than … (because so many times, the rest of the sentence refers to something that really isn’t that bad, especially when compared to something like the death of a loved one)

This kind of sensitivity can also can come into play if you’re trying to convince friends, family or colleagues to have a will, business insurance, medical directive and other end-of-life plans, power of attorney, easily found emergency contact information, etc., or at least as a reminder that we all should have those documents and provisions in place, regardless of whether we’re in business or work for someone. Illness and accidents can happen to anyone. It’s important to try to be prepared, on our own behalf and on behalf of those whom we love, live with, and work for or with, because we really don’t know what could happen from one day to the next.

Workarounds that work

Colleagues suggested a couple of clever ways to avoid using phrases like “hit by a bus/truck/train”: “‘In case I get hit by a comet’ — highly unlikely you’ll encounter anyone who’s had that experience” and “In case you’re abducted by aliens” — also highly unlikely (we hope).

Instead of “the worst thing is,” I use “One of the worst things [in this situation] is” or “Few things are as bad/hard/difficult/painful as …”  

For my future presentations, I plan to simply say that accidents, injury and illness can happen to anyone, regardless of age or health status, so health, business and life insurance are key things to include when launching an editorial (or any) business. 

Are there any terms or phrases that you avoid, or that trigger trauma on some level when used by others, because of personal experience or events that affected friends and family?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter ( is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (, now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors ( and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (, which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at or


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