The email in my inbox was short but not quite to the point, as it turns out: “Yes, that’s right.”

But I asked two questions … which one is “right”?

We’ve all been in this situation, either as the recipient who is squinting at the screen in confusion or as the sender who thinks the meaning is clear as day. Confusing exchanges not only are frustrating when they happen frequently, but also turn a “convenient” method of communication into a waste of time.

You might as well have picked up the phone. How archaic!

If you’re frequently asked to clarify your emails, a handful of phrases is likely to blame. Here are 27+ of the most common words to avoid in emails. Use them with caution or expunge them from your vocabulary entirely and you’ll save time and energy in trying to get your point across.

First and foremost, pronouns:

  • He / She / They
  • Him / Her / Them
  • It
  • These / Those
  • That / This

The golden rule of all communication is to be as specific as possible. You’re not a mind reader and neither is your audience. Pronouns have a time and a place, and your writing would look ridiculous without them. However, make sure it’s absolutely 100 percent clear what the pronoun antecedent—the noun that the pronoun is replacing, for all the non-grammar-geeks out there—is in order to avoid confusion.

For example: “Bill would like those delivered to Jake ASAP. He needs to see the reports, too.” Who needs to see the reports, Bill or Jake? It’s a mystery.

Better Email Communication

Next, vague deadlines:

  • ASAP
  • Urgent
  • Soon
  • Quickly
  • STAT
  • Pronto
  • Whenever you get a chance
  • When you have a moment

Each of these vague time frames implies that a deadline exists, but we’re not privy to that exact deadline. What if “ASAP” means that an article is needed within a few hours, but I take it to mean I can have it done by tomorrow? If I need to drop what I’m doing and work on your urgent project at this very moment, say so. Otherwise, I will use my own judgement to work it into my schedule behind other priority items. Give specific dates and times, like “by 5 p.m. on Monday the 12th,” in order to leave no room for interpretation.

Now for some overused words:

  • Really
  • Literally
  • Quite
  • A bit
  • Perhaps
  • Somewhat
  • Pretty much
  • Basically
  • Definitely

If you quite literally pepper these really overused adverbs and adjectives throughout pretty much all of your emails, basically your audience will perhaps be somewhat unable to understand what you’re definitely trying to say.

Whew! Makes you want to reach through the screen and give the writer a good shake, doesn’t it? Out with it already!

Don’t fluff up your writing with these overused words, especially if the email already threatens to be a long one. Short, precise sentences are easier to understand.

Finally, a personal pet peeve, vague expectations:

  • Work your magic
  • Do your best
  • Make it better
  • Fix it
  • Do it right

Better how? What needs fixing? What does “right” look like?

When I started freelancing, one of my first clients sent me short articles and essays to proof and edit. So my job consisted of rewriting awkward phrases and correcting verb tenses. Sometimes I had to rewrite the entire article line-by-line to make it sound correct. After I’d worked with this client for a while, the instructions sent with each document became increasingly vague, until one day the email simply said “Work your magic.”

Better Email Communication

I was flattered. Me? Magical? Who knew editing was a superpower! I opened the attachment and read through a very well-written piece. The vocabulary was great and the awkward phrases were few and far between. From my perspective, all that was needed was some proofreading and light editing. I sent the document back with Track Changes enabled as usual.

The reply landed in my inbox with unusual speed. “Is that it? We’re expecting more than that. Please edit rather than proofread.”

I sent back an apology and explained why I’d made so few changes and put the onus back on myself, hoping the client would take the hint and send clearer instructions in the future: “I’ll be sure to ask for clarification next time if the instructions aren’t clear.”

But the “hope they’ll take the hint” approach is not helpful in any communication and I don’t recommend it. If you need your client, manager or co-worker to do something differently in the future, be direct. Be specific. For example, it’s not just a “report”—it’s “the Google Adwords report for Joe’s Cabinet Company, campaign B, from 6/1/15 to 7/1/15.” Open lines of communication are important so that everyone knows what is expected.

As another example, mass emails require you to explicitly name the people whom you need a response from or who need to take action. Assigning tasks to people by name ensures they will get done. Otherwise, you risk having everyone assume that someone else is taking care of it.

What words or phrases would you add to this list? Have you ever used a phrase that caused a communication mishap? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll gladly amend this list with your suggestions.

If you know someone who could benefit from this article, share it! And if vague emails are a chronic condition in your workplace, add a link to your signature as a useful reminder.

I’d like to thank my editor Cathy Habas for collaborating with me on this piece.