“Whatever” topped Marist College’s recent list of the most annoying conversational word or phrase, the choice of 47% of the 938 Americans surveyed. “You know” finished second with 25%, followed by “it is what it is” (11%), “anyway” (7%) and “at the end of the day” (2%). Those were, like, uh, the only five choices–ignoring many other deserving candidates.
As usual, I’m outside the mainstream on this. To me, an awkward “you know” (or two, or 10) is the biggest turnoff in a person’s conversation. “Whatever” can have several connotations, depending how it’s delivered. With the right nuance, it can still be an effective word to express exasperation or dissonance. Regardless of how a speaker says it, the word always conveys some meaning.
“You know,” on the other hand, has no redeeming value. It’s an obstacle, a conversational stalling tactic, a sure sign of indecision and nervousness. Look at Caroline Kennedy: One “you know”-laden interview killed her quest to succeed Hilary Clinton as U.S. Senator from New York.
In writing, of course, the list of overused expressions runs much longer than these five conversational annoyances. But when you’re writing a letter to a prospective client, a memo to your team or a report, it’s hard to know when a particular expression crosses over from widely understood figure of speech to sad cliché. Nor does it always matter; if the phrase is still connecting with your audience, using a cliché might be entirely appropriate.
Ultimately, it’s purely a matter of taste, of finding a balance and a rhythm in your writing and adopting a tone that feels natural. Finding that happy medium is another reason everyone can use an objective editor.