An internship description from the office of general counsel for a major financial services company seeks someone who can provide “actionable solutions.” For one of my MBA students, this represents a golden opportunity. For me, it is a battle lost.
Until the last decade or so, “actionable” had only one meaning: something you could get sued for. That is still the primary definition. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/actionable
When clients ask me if I can deliver an “actionable communication plan,” my standard response is, “I certainly hope not.”
But if the office of general counsel—the crack team of legal advisors—for a Fortune 500 company thinks “actionable” means “something that can be acted upon,” can I really continue to hold my ground?
The problem is that there isn’t really any single word that means quite what the misuse of “actionable” communicates. The word “effective” would do it, if we hadn’t already diminished its effectiveness. “Deliverable” would be perfect, except that we’ve turned that into a noun.
“Implementable” is what people are really trying to convey, but that, apparently, isn’t a word.
Still—when has that ever stopped us?
I will continue to reserve “actionable” in its technical, legal sense for the time being. For those of us who know the difference, the misuse is grating—and why take the chance that your reader or listener will be one of the few who knows the difference?
My first business writing job was with an incentive motivation company. It was a fairly new concept back then—the idea of a tangible reward for performance over a specified period of time. Studies were just beginning to show that cash bonuses backfired, because people started thinking of them as a standard part of their compensation, so they weren’t motivated to go above and beyond to earn them, but resented not getting them.
The most important thing I learned during my short stint at that company is that salespeople tend to be those who are strongly motivated by hearing people say “yes,” but who put themselves in roles that, more than any other, involved hearing people say “no.”
I still remember the definition of incentive motivation provided by one of the company’s vice-presidents: “Do more than you possibly can, and we’ll give you a toaster.”
It didn’t take long for incentive motivation to be a standard element in our business repertoire. There are many variations—gift catalogs, luxury trips, reserved parking spaces, and the concept has spread far beyond the sales force.
That’s all fine and dandy. What’s unfortunate is the range of mangled terminology that’s emerged: “Incentivize,” “incentify,” and, the one that’s most horrible and therefore, predictably, the one that seems to be taking over, “incent.”
Here’s the deal: The purpose of incentive motivation is to motivate. That’s a perfectly legitimate, acceptable verb form, ready and willing to be used. As the preceding paragraphs show, there is no occasion when the various mangled verbs derived from “incentive” mean anything more or other than “motivate.”
All we need is the motivation to use the right word.
Ironically, the misuse of “premise” to mean a dwelling or habitation is based on an erroneous premise: One house, two houses; one business, two businesses. But there is no singular of “premises” when it refers to land and buildings.
The word “premise,” meaning “a proposition that supports a conclusion,” can be plural—“premises.”
Both words probably have the same Latin root—“what comes before.” The proposition comes before the conclusion, clearly. In the case of the land and buildings, deeds and title documents used the word “premises” to avoid repeating the full legal description. “Premises” just meant “that place we’re talking about.”
If you hear someone using “premise” as a singular for anything other than a logical proposition, just order them off the premises.