Choosing the right word
Both questions I received this month were about word choice (see below), and I received a contract letter from my accountant that informed me his services would not detect ‘defalcation’. I had to reach for a dictionary to discover he was writing about misappropriation of money. Even ‘misappropriation’ is a mouthful, but at least I know what it means.
Being a writer, I thought I should have known what ‘defalcation’ meant, but I didn’t. When we use obscure words, we risk making people feel dumb or cause them to skip over words they don’t know. I bet most of my accountant’s clients just signed the contract without bothering about what the word meant.
One of the reasons word choice is difficult is that we have so many words to choose from. The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary says:
‘Something that is very pleasing to look at can be described as attractive, beauteous, beautiful, bonny, comely, cute, fair, gorgeous, handsome, knockout, lovely, pretty, ravishing, sightly, stunning, or taking, but which word is best for describing a sunset? A city? Should you use knockout to describe a cathedral or ravishing for a sports car?’
When I am trying to find the right word, I consider my audience and the tone I want to create. When I find myself slipping into grammar jargon, I try to find plain language alternatives. When I choose a fading word, such as ‘brevity’ or ‘bereft’, I ask myself if there is a more modern word to convey the same meaning (nuance?).
If you want to improve your word choice, register for my online program, Working with Words.
Word choice: options/alternatives and relations/relatives
Reader’s comment: A reader said that the following sentence written by Pam Peters that I quoted in last month’s newsletter should have used the word, ‘options’ rather than ‘alternatives’.
‘At its best, and/or is a succinct way of giving three alternatives for the price of two.’
My response: The words ‘alternatives’ and ‘options’ are often used interchangeably without any confusion, but I read an article by Grammar Girl that said:
‘… hard-core traditionalists insist that you should only use the word “alternative” when there are two choices and no more because “alternative” comes from the Latin word “alter,” which means “the other of two”…’
She goes on to say that most people don’t adhere to that rule.
In the same article, Grammar Girl talked about the difference between alternatives and options, which I found interesting. She said that ‘an alternative has to be an alternative to something else’, so there will always be more options than alternatives.
Her tip is: ‘Remember that the “o” in “option” is also the first letter of “one”, and there’s always one more option than there are alternatives. If you have 11 alternatives, you’ll have 12 options.’
Read more at http://bit.ly/5GP73J
My editor disagreed with Grammar Girl, stating that she is drawing a distinction that doesn’t exist. He said that as long ago as 1926, Fowler (Fowler’s Modern English Usage) said ‘alternative’ can mean ‘either of a pair or any one of a set’.
What do you think? Email email@example.com
Reader’s question: Which is the most appropriate word for describing people in your immediate and extended family: relations or relatives?
Response: I think we use these words interchangeably. If you have an opinion about these words, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Public workshop on writing board papers
I am facilitating a public workshop on writing board papers in Sydney on 20 August for Chartered Secretaries Australia.
If you’re interested in attending, you can find out more at http://bit.ly/12lqPwc
Fit or fitted?
A reader told me he hated the way Australians are now copying American usage and using ‘fit’ instead of ‘fitted’ (The dress fit me.). I hadn’t noticed this, but now I am aware of it, I have seen it several times.
More on ‘comprises of’ and ‘comprised of’
Several readers pointed out that ‘comprises of’ and ‘comprised of’ are both poor usage. (I only criticised ‘comprises of’.) Having done more research, I agree. Avoid both phrases!
The American usage of ‘of’ in sentences such as: The patio is outside of the house.
Interesting articles on language
Does English have a future tense?
Some linguists say there is no future tense in the English language. That sounds nonsense, but when you think about it, the base form does not change in future tenses (I work, I worked, I will work).
Read more at http://bit.ly/13vxjQJ
Want to learn how to think? Read fiction
I can’t imagine a life without reading fiction and was delighted to read this blog about research that shows reading improves your thinking.
The blog states: ‘A trio of University of Toronto scholars, led by psychologist Maja Djikic, reports that people who have just read a short story have less need for what psychologists call “cognitive closure.” Compared with peers who have just read an essay, they expressed more comfort with disorder and uncertainty—attitudes that allow for both sophisticated thinking and greater creativity.’
Read more at http://bit.ly/194qFPN
Funky keyboards with vowels on the right will never replace qwerty
In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald, Harry Wallop says: ‘There aren’t many inventions from the 19th century that remain in daily use across the world, completely unmodified. The flushing loo, the ballpoint pen and the safety match merit a mention. But one is so ubiquitous that most of us take it for granted: the qwerty keyboard.’
Read more at http://bit.ly/14OAU9k
My blogs this month
I wrote about the subjunctive this month because I often see recommendations in board papers use ‘approve’ and ‘approves’ interchangeably (That the Board approve/approves).
Word of the month
mondegreen – term for misheard lyrics, such as ‘sweet dreams are made of cheese’.
Quote of the month
‘Using a thesaurus will not make you look smarter. It will only make you look like you are trying to look smarter.’
Adrienne Dowhan et al., Essays That Will Get You Into College.