How to eliminate words from your idiolect

Motivation

Why I’m writing this

I’m writing this a post because a friend and I were talking about how I’ve removed several words from my idiolect (the particular set of words used by an individual—kind of like your personal dialect). I mentioned that there are a number of factors that affect how hard it is to do this, and he was really curious to hear my advice on the subject.

Also, in attempting to do some research for this post, I googled how to eliminate a word from your vocabulary, and… nobody was really answering that question—nearly all of the posts were instead just lists of words to eliminate, with various justifications. So I thought I would step up!

Why might you want to?

There are tons of potential reasons to ditch words from your vocab. Off the top of my head:

  • because they offend people (or trigger them)
  • because they make you sound less confident (such as filler words)
  • because they’re considered jargony or buzzwordy
  • because you find they mask ambiguities (written about as Taboo your Words on LessWrong)
  • because you don’t like certain thought patterns that use those words

Thought patterns, are, I think, the most exciting one. I recently was talking to a friend about their progress in terms of their introspective capacities, and I posed the question, “compared to where you were 2 years ago, where do you think you’ll be in another year?” I was trying to get a appreciation of their sense of their rate of growth. This brought up the interesting point, though, which is that we often ask (ourselves and each other) where we expect to be in n years, in terms of external progress, but so rarely do we ask questions that reduce to “how do you want to be modelling yourself and the world in n years?” You can consciously change how you think, and words are a great place to start.

(There are a lot of “reframings” that I’m planning to write about, many of which involve changing your language. For example, choosing to reframe “I have to” as “I choose to” or “I want to”. Ultimately we aren’t fundamentally compelled to do much of anything. Now, it may be that you choose to go in to work because if you don’t then you’ll lose your job and be unable to pay rent, but it remains a choice that you’re making based on the consequences and I think there’s value in choosing to think about it that way. If you subscribe at the bottom of this page, you’ll get more reframings like this!)

Why do you want to?

Before you even start eliminating a word, it’s valuable to actually answer this question. Why are you choosing to do this? Different reasons will suggest different approaches later on. Note that you might have several reasons, including some that aren’t listed above (if so, please let me know in the comments!). If you’re reading this post but you don’t actually have a word or a reason in mind, then you can even just set out to do this as an experiment, to see what the process is like.

Noticing what’s right below your nose

The first step to changing your behaviour is to notice it. As I mentioned to my friend, this can be harder or easier for different words. He wanted to get rid of the word “hate”, and I remarked that it seemed like it would be easier to notice than “should” (a word I eliminated last year—here’s why) because “hate” is already charged with a lot of intensity.

So that’s one aspect to tweak: make the word seem more important or intense. Set aside some time to imagine a moment in which you might use the word, and then pay attention to whatever negative impact (in you and/or others) its use would potentially have. Again, with some words this will be quite direct and clear; with others, less so. Either way, I think this visceralization helps. You might also contrast a visceralization of the unwanted impact of the word-to-get-rid-of with a visceralization of whatever you’re planning to substitute it with. This gives you a greater appreciation for why this habit shift is important to you.

My other main suggestion is to make the word more salient by practicing paying attention to it in structured contexts, like a musician practising scales or a tennis player practising serves. Ultimately, you’re going to need to be able to notice it in yourself in real-time, but there are baby steps you can take to get there:

  • review old text or audio recordings of yourself and count how many times you use the word.
  • when listening to others talk, pay extremely close attention to their use of the word. How does it feel to notice?
  • set a timer for 5 minutes and try to write down as many general or specific cases in which you’ve used that word.

One big recommendation I’ll offer is to set up feedback loops. Think about how hard it might be to quit swearing habitually. Now think about how much easier it might be if you were friends with a couple who had a toddler and were hypervigilant about not swearing in front of the toddler. Their feedback on your swearing helps you notice it. So what this means is to tell your friends, family, roommates, and colleagues that you’re trying to get rid of the word from your vocabulary, and awarding them social points if they catch you. For subtle triggers like this, I think it’s important that your social feedback loops don’t involve shame/blame/judgment, because then it can create a negative association with the thing you’re trying to notice, which will tend to make your brain aversive to noticing it. A whole post on this here.

Initially you’ll only notice some fraction of the instances in which you use it. Then, you’ll start to notice most of them, but usually after you’ve said them. It can often make sense to reframe what you’ve said at that point, either aloud in the conversation or silently to yourself. Then eventually you get to the point where you notice when you’re just about to say it though, you can move onto the final aspect: change.

Changing your communication patterns

Now we come back to your “why” from earlier. Depending on your reasons for wanting to change, you’ll be taking a different approach in terms of what behaviour you’ll be introducing as an alternative to saying the taboo-word.

If you’re getting rid of the word because it’s “offensive”, then you might want to get rid of the entire phrase that was going to contain it, because there’s a decent chance that the sentence was just there for the shock value or whatever. If not, then spend some time brainstorming a word or two you might want to substitute.

For filler words like “umm,” “uhh,” and “like,” you basically just replace them with a pause. In certain contexts (and with certain people) holding attention with silence can be a challenge, which is one reason that we use filler words. From my recent experience with this though, if you speak confidently, deliberately, and more slowly, people will still give you the floor. It occurs to me that one reason people might continually interrupting a speaker midsentence just because s/he pauses for thought, maybe they find the speaker boring or overly longwinded.

Jargon or buzzwords can be tough. Jargon can be really helpful shorthand in in-group contexts. The key is to be able to avoid using it externally, and to avoid using it in situations where it would be confusing or ambiguous. More generally, to be context-sensitive enough to know when you’ll need to include a brief explanation (like I did with the word “idiolect” at the start of this post, because it really is the right word for the job). Same goes for “rationalist taboo”, where you think a word is confusingly ambiguous. Instead, try to speak directly to the properties you’re trying to talk about.

It’s not about enacting a permanent ban

In the long term, I don’t think you want to have a 100% ban on certain words. At bare minimum, you probably want to be able to at least tell people “I’ve stopped using the word ‘should'”. I might make a distinction between using a word and just talking about it. For example, saying “I don’t use pens” doesn’t preclude you from picking one up. Nor does “I don’t use caffeine” preclude you from eating milk chocolate. Sure, chocolate contains a bit of caffeine, but if you’re eating it because it tastes good and you aren’t getting any noticeable stimulant effects, then it can be reasonable to say that it’s not a drug you “use”. But do be careful not to get your behaviour and identity totally out of whack.

Furthermore, odds are decent that there will be contexts in which it makes sense to use whatever words you’re getting rid of. I’ve gotten rid of should and sorry, for the most part, but there are still times when I find it useful to say something like “so yeah, the costume is in my room, just open my closet and it should be there inside a red and black bag.” With sorry, I actively and consciously try not to use it. But sometimes it can be a a good way to diffuse something with a stranger.

Something like “hate”? Honestly, you can probably do just fine without that word. But unless you fear that you’ll become hooked on it again if you let yourself use it, then I don’t see a reason to restrict it altogether. You might also find yourself using the word in a negated context, like “I don’t think hate is an effective way to relate to people.”

I think the underlying value of this kind of intentional idiolect manipulation is that it gets you to think more consciously about your speech. That means that it can be paired quite deliciously with mindfulness practice, because both involve noticing where your brain is going and redirecting it to go somewhere else. I’ve talked a bit about applied mindfulness earlier this month.

Besides, it’s a pretty safe experiment to do—if you find, after experimentation and consideration, that you want the word back, just start using it again.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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1 Comment

Gretchen » 6 Jun 2014 » Reply

The distinction between types of “should” that you’re noting is known as epistemic vs deontic modality. You’re saying you want to keep epistemic “should” but banish deontic “should.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_modality#Epistemic_vs._deontic_modality

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