Choosing the Right Word

rendering of three cups game using black cups and a red ball

Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” But how do we choose the right word?

Sometimes a word just hits us and we know it’s right. But oftentimes, writers struggle to select the “perfect” word for a situation. What do we do then? Should we play the three cups game and hope for the best? What about eeny meeny miny mo? (You can read some writing and wonder if that isn’t how the writer chose the words he or she used.)

Actually, there is an easy and logical 6-step process to go through when determining which word to use:

1. Determine the Denotation

Denotation is simply the meaning of a word or phrase. The first thing to consider when choosing a word is, “what message or meaning are we wanting to share?” If we wish to inform someone, we “tell” them. If a doctor tells us something, however, we typically use the word “order,” as in “Doctor’s orders.”

2. Consider the Context

Context affects meaning. When writers or speakers use a “normal” word within its context, its normal or inherent meaning is conveyed to the audience.

Context usage can typically be divided into three categories: formal, informal (or “normal”), and out of the ordinary. For instance, when someone dies, the typically used formal sentence would be “He passed away.” An informal use, which most of us use in 90 percent of our conversations, would be “He died.” An out-of-the-ordinary example would be, “He kicked the bucket.” Such out-of-context phrases are used sparingly in writing and speech in order to give the most impact.

Other aspects of context are authority and urgency. Back to the “doctor’s orders” example. In this useage, the word “order” is used within normal context. However, if we say to a friend, “My doctor commanded . . .” then the listener takes special notice of the seriousness of the situation. The word “commanded” is considered a “marked” word, because it is used out of context and therefore evokes a special meaning, which in turn, stimulates an emotional response within the reader.

If a military person says, “My captain commanded me to . . .” the word commanded is used within normal context and therefore doesn’t generate any special notation in the listener’s mind. But if the military man says, “My captain demanded,” that changes things. A robber demands, but when a captain starts making demands instead of commands, the listener pays closer attention because demands is “marked” in this context.

3. Select Some Synonyms

Once you’ve determined the context and the meaning you wish to convey, in order to choose the right word, you need to get a list of words to choose from. You can find what linguists call a “synonymic cluster” by using a thesaurus. Pick the top five or six. In our “order” example, you’ll likely find words such as “order, require, demand, command, tell, direct, etc.”

Other ways to find synonyms are through search engines (Google lists synonymic phrases at the bottom of each search results page), the dictionary, and brainstorming. Try using mind maps.

You may wish to “rank” them in order that they typically appear in normal context. The less typical a word is, the more impact you will create by using it. A word of caution, though — if you pick a word your target audience isn’t familiar with, they will be frustrated instead of fascinated.

4. Eliminate the Erroneous

When scanning your list of synonyms, you’ll quickly see a few words that are obviously wrong for what you’re wanting to say. Scratch those and move to the next step.

5. Pin Down the Parameters

So, we’re wanting to inform someone of something (denotation), and now we need to decide what if any parameters need defining. This is the “underlying meaning” or “reading between the lines” part of communication. When the doctor “demands,” the parameters of this word are “stress the seriousness of the order.”

If you have no specific parameters, then simply use the most typical word. Using out-of-context or non-typical words without having a specific purpose doesn’t create impact. It just makes the writer or speaker look like they’re talking down to the audience by showing off their vocabulary.

6. Pick the Perfect Word

You may have already found your word before you’ve reached this final step, but if not, examine your list of ranked synonyms and go over your meaning, context, and parameters again, then select the best word from your list of choices.

Until next time,

Happy Blogging!

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#1 Choose the Right Words « Writing On The Fine Line on 05.31.12 at 1:26 am

[…] But more often than not, writers have to search for the perfect word. Here is great information from the website, On Blogging Well, that provides six ways to do that. […]

#2 Choose the Right Words « Writing On The Fine Line on 07.05.12 at 3:04 am

[…] for the perfect word. Here is great information from the website, On Blogging Well, that provides six ways to do that. Do you have tips for enhancing clarity? Share them! Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine […]

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