Choosing the Right Word: Close Isn’t Good Enough

In his hilarious and withering lampoon of nineteenth-century novelist J. Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain famously observed that good writing requires the writer to "use the right word, not its second cousin."¹ Twain was a master at using the right word, with effects that ranged from the poignant to the stirring to the biting and, quite often, to the side-splitting. Here he is again in chapter 27 of Roughing It, describing with fond humor an associate from his silver mining days whose standard of usage was a bit different from Twain's:
Mr. Ballou, through whose iron-clad earnestness no sarcasm could pierce, said that ... the provisions were exposed and would suffer, the horses being "bituminous from long deprivation." The reader will excuse me from translating. What Mr. Ballou customarily meant, when he used a long word, was a secret between himself and his Maker.... His one striking peculiarity was his Partingtonian fashion of loving and using big words for their own sakes, and independent of any bearing they might have upon the thought he was purposing to convey. He always let his ponderous syllables fall with an easy unconsciousness that left them wholly without offensiveness. In truth his air was so natural and so simple that one was always catching himself accepting his stately sentences as meaning something, when they really meant nothing in the world. If a word was long and grand and resonant, that was sufficient to win the old man's love, and he would drop that word into the most out-of-the-way place in a sentence or a subject, and be as pleased with it as if it were perfectly luminous with meaning.
Twain not only elicits a smile but also makes a point that many a writer should take to heart. One of the corrections I make often as an editor is to switch out poor word choices for appropriate ones, and one of my more frequent queries is, "Correct word? Consider [I suggest alternatives]." It's good to choose colorful words that breathe vigor and freshness into a sentence. But they have got to actually mean what the writer wants them to mean. Not almost what he means; not merely in the neighborhood of what she intends, close enough that it might pass if the reader isn't paying attention.² Close enough isn't good enough. A good writer doesn't use words casually. He or she loves them too much and cares too much about their effect to sling them about with the easy indiscriminateness of a Mr. Ballou. Don't you be a Ballou. Here are a few tips that can help you ensure that you're choosing the right word for the job. Use Your Dictionary If there is an overarching principle of good word usage, it is this: Keep your dictionary within easy reach and use it often. If you use an online dictionary, fine. Internet dictionaries are convenient, and I consult them regularly, although—call me old-fashioned—I still often prefer my print version of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, which is the current standard for popular writing. Whatever your dictionary of choice may be, just use it, that's all. I can't emphasize this enough: Consulting your dictionary ought to be so regular and natural a part of your writing habit that it's instinctive. When in doubt about a word, look it up. I've done so several times so far in writing this post and will do so many more times before it's finished. Use Your Thesaurus—Properly A good thesaurus ought to sit right next to your desktop dictionary as a standard writing tool. It's a treasure trove of possibilities for finding just the right word to create the effect you're after. Look at all those cool words your thesaurus contains—words you never dreamed of, lustrous pearls of nuance and mood, all yours to choose from! But before you string one of them onto that sentence you're composing, do one thing: look it up first. Because its meaning might be other than what you thought and different from what you want to say. Your thesaurus isn't a dictionary. It's designed to broaden your options for word choices, thus expanding your creativity and impact as a writer. But to use it successfully requires using it judiciously, with the understanding that the synonyms it suggests for a given entry all have their specific meanings, and a particular word may not fit the application you have in mind. So once you've found a word you like in your thesaurus, then unless that word is one whose meaning you're certain of, look it up. Otherwise, your readers may be less impressed by it than you are. Don't Trust "Understanding through Context" How often have you inferred the meaning of an unfamiliar word through the way it was used? You didn't need to grab the dictionary; the word's context defined it for you. Or so you thought. You can in fact often determine a word's meaning from its context. But you'd be surprised how often you guess wrong. You may hit the bullseye, but you may just as easily merely clip the blue ring or even miss the target entirely. How do I know? Because my own profession as a writer has shown me what a rotten shot I can be when it comes to using words whose definitions I've extrapolated rather than looked up. So I've learned to listen to that inner voice when it asks, Do I really know what this word means? As soon as that question pops up, it's dictionary time. Only after I've ascertained the word's meaning do I use that word—or refrain from using it and find a more appropriate choice. I'm nit-picky that way, incorrigibly so, and if you're a writer, you should be too. Deducing a word's meaning from its context is fine when you're reading casually and feeling lazy, but it's not acceptable when you're writing. If you care enough about your subject to write about it, you should care enough to write about it well, and that means, among other things, knowing exactly what it is you're saying. Words are the currency of communication; be able to account for every dime you spend. In Conclusion Word usage is an area where you can't afford to give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Don't just think that you know what a word means; make certain you do before you use it. Frequently consulting your dictionary is the mark of a thirsty mind and an exacting and responsible writer. ___________________ 1. Mark Twain, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," 1895. Cooper wrote The Last of the Mohicans and other books in the Leatherstocking pioneer fiction series. 2. I'm well aware that I've used a verbless sentence. I'm quite comfortable with that. See my article on sentence fragments.