The English language has a wealth of words to choose from, yet sometimes we struggle to find the ‘right’ word. As Mark Twain said:
‘The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.’
The English language has gaps
Sometimes the word we want just doesn’t seem to exist. As Elizabeth Farrelly noted in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald, English doesn’t have words for concepts such as déjà vu or wabi sabi (the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection).
She points out there should be a noun for the verb to ignore (the word ‘ignorance’ doesn’t do it) and more words for beauty — a word for the gravitas of a Doric column, and one for noble beauty that the ancients called arete.
Some new words work well; others are ugly
Sometimes we try and fill the gaps by inventing words or giving existing words new meanings.
Many invented words are wonderful. Two on shortlist for the Macquarie Dictionary 2017 Word of the Year were:
- Endling (last of a species)
- Framily (intimate group of people not related by blood)
Some are ugly. For example:
- Re-purposing boulders (moving them from one place to another)
- Onboarding new clients (registering or enrolling them)
Words with different meanings can cause confusion
Words with different meanings can be confusing and there are lots of them. A few years ago I bought a heated towel rail. There were six left in the warehouse: three with left-hand power and three with right. I requested ‘left’. When I picked one up, the store assistant assured me it was ‘left’ and pointed to the box where ‘left’ was written in felt-tip pen. When I got home, I looked again and read ‘5 left’. (Yes, I did buy the right one!)
I asked members of the All about Words Facebook group what words they thought are commonly confused. I expected to see the usual culprits:
- Principal vs principle
- Advice vs advise
- It’s vs its
And I did. One person commented that she ‘was going too add two more that are just to common’.
Yet others surprised me. They included:
- Pacific vs specific
- Apologies vs apologise
- Capitol vs capital
- Prospective vs perspective
- Prostrate vs prostate
Avoiding first-choice words can cause confusion
I often try and avoid using the same word within a paragraph because it looks repetitive. Yet sometimes my efforts for variety can lead to confusion. For instance, if I switch between words such as workshop. course, seminar, presentation and session, am I referring to the same or different things?
Another couple of examples are:
- Survey, report, investigation
- Issue, concern, problem, question
Use words your readers will relate to
We’re often advised to write words we would use if we were talking face-to-face with our readers. These words are usually short, specific words.
Using that principle, I still find that I need to ‘massage’ my language to strike the right tone for the audience and medium. Words such as ‘get’ and ‘use’ seem too informal for a report or board paper.
As Marcus Tullius Cicero said:
‘If you wish to persuade me, you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings, and speak my words.’