Avoid Speaking in Absolutes

Avoid Speaking in Absolutes

When using the English language we often use words to emphasize, exaggerate and in extreme cases castastrophize a situation. In our current world of managing the worldwide pandemic there is a lot of social and political commentary on how best to navigate through the present climate. While the pandemic is unprecedented territory for the majority of people, the use of language to emphasize, exaggerate or castastrophize any situation has existed forever (and there’s the first example of what not to do!!!). Maybe the use inappropriate use of language to make a point hasn’t existed forever. How would or could anyone know that. It is impossible (and there’s another one!).

We, as in the collective noun for lots of English-speaking people, often (not always) have a habit of speaking in absolutes. In many, some, certainly not all (as how would or could anyone know) businesses and industries, there are occasions when people use words that indicate there is no room to move in the scale of the description. And while we accept, and possibly even understand, the meaning behind the absolutes as not being factual, it may be preferable to avoid using absolutes.

As my background is in education (as a primary school principal) I have read and listened to teachers, parents and colleagues for over thirty years. I have a litany of examples of why and how the use of absolutes are used inappropriately in some circumstances, not all (as an absolute) as there may be occasions when an absolute is relevant and accurate. For some people using absolutes are part of their regular (not all or everyday – as an absolute) vernacular. I am simply suggesting that to avoid ambiguity and inaccuracies, which may lead to tension, misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the true reality, using absolutes should / could be kept to a minimum.

As I am suggesting one model in using the English language more accurately, it is only fitting that I offer alternatives. While the majority of the examples used will be based in the education context, some examples may draw on other settings.

When reflecting on human behaviours there is very little that is absolute. Frequency of behaviours will vary. Behaviours of groups will vary based on the individuals. Individuals’ behaviours may vary depending on numerous factors. Making judgements about a group based on the behaviour of one or more individuals may result in misrepresentation of the reality.

When discussing parents, teachers may use the absolute to group parents as one: “All” parents, or “every” parent. Similarly, when discussing students, teachers may use language to reflect the whole group, when in reality it may not be everyone to which they are referring. I have heard teachers refer to “that cohort” which is the collective term for the whole group. For group actions the whole cohort can be relevant. For example, that cohort are going on an excursion. This may be accurate. Yet when we refer to behaviours of “that cohort” we should avoid the generalisation which refers to the whole group. It is unlikely that the whole cohort will display the same behaviours.

Using language accurately should / could assist in avoiding misunderstandings. This debate can align with balancing relationships with protocols. Policies, procedures, practices, protocols exist to give guidance for behaviours. Yet rarely do they exist without exceptions. Hence it is recommended that language is used accurately to reflect the human nature that exceptions exist in most circumstances. As such to avoid misrepresentations of reality and accept that human behaviours may vary, depending on numerous factors, absolutes should be minimised. Accurate use of language keeps the message clear and distinct, avoiding misinterpretation that come with absolutes.


When reflecting upon how often an absolute is used accurately, I suspect that it is uncommon when in the context of human behaviour. In business, in education, while we may like human behaviour to be predictable, and in many cases it is, being human gives us free will to make choices. History may teach us what behaviours are probable and possible, they may not be guaranteed. Exceptions exist. Without people being ‘adventurous’ and doing what others thought be impossible, we may not live as we do today. Think of any of the great inventions. I suspect they may have had their doubters. Yet they exist because those responsible may not have listened to the detractors. They backed themselves and the world is a better place for most of the inventions: medical advancements; technology; explorations. People responsible didn’t believe in absolutes!

While our observations of individuals make for specific feedback possible, group feedback is fraught with the possibility of absolutes. Not ideal. Even in our everyday conversations the use of absolutes may not reflect reality or accurate meaning. If we wish to keep our message simple and promote communication, then absolutes could be avoided or at least minimised. Absolutes suggest there is only one way to do something. It is highly probable that there are more than one way to do anything/ everything. So in lieu of absolutes there are alternatives. For your consideration here are some suggestions.

Never – rarely, infrequently, not often

Always – usually, often, most of the time

Everyday – often, usually, sometimes

Every time – frequently

Every single time – Usually

No Longer – It is unlikely to reoccur

I guarantee – I anticipate it is highly likely or probable

100% it will happen – More than likely my experience suggests it could happen

All of the time, people do such and such – Frequently many people behave like this

Everyone of them does it – Most people from my experience behave like this

All the boys / girls – a lot of the students display this trait

Forever – as long as I can recall

Whole life – most of what I can remember

All – most, some, as many as I am familiar

Only – one way to describe or emphasise something

That complete / whole group – most, some, majority; those with whom I have worked

Impossible – highly unlikely, improbable (history will tell us that some of the world success stories are about people who were told their vision was impossible. As soon as they prove their vision was possible, then the use of the word “impossible”, as an absolute, is proven to be invalid. Hence, we should avoid using words that are absolutes.