Words. It’s amazing what they can do. There are many wonderful words in English, but I don’t take advantage of that variety nearly as much as I could. Sloppy speech is one thing. But even speech without ugly fillers such as “like”, even writing that is grammatically correct, can be so lacking, not just in variety but in shades of meaning that add colour and clarity to what one is trying to say.
I know, because I’m guilty of this sort of writing myself. It was brought to my attention last week when I came across a book in the library called A Cure for the Common Word: Remedy Your Ailing Vocabulary with 3,000+ Vibrant Alternatives to the Most Overused Words. It takes words that I know I use time and time again–overworked words such as “bad”, “do”, “feel”, “good”, “need”,”new”, and “well”–explains what’s wrong with that particular word, and suggests alternatives, along with a selected amount of definitions and concrete examples. There are so many words that I seldom, if ever, use, while I settle for other words far too much.
Let’s try a word that I certainly overwork– “interesting”. What’s wrong with it? It’s vague, my book explains. It fails to explain why something was interesting. There are lots of alternatives! These are the ones that A Cure for the Common Word particularly highlighted:
Can’t you see difference? I can get across so much better exactly why that book or this event was “interesting”. I can choose just the right word to convey a more precise impression or a subtler shade of meaning. This doesn’t only enrich my hearer or reader, it enlightens him. It adds not only beauty, but truth.
Let’s try another overworked word: “good”. I had a good time. It was a good book. He is a good man.
How could we make that more–I nearly said interesting! How could we make those sentences more informative, as well as more of a delight to read?
Here are what the book calls “powerful remedies”:
Some of those words will be appropriate for one context and with one intended meaning, while others will be more appropriate for different occasions and purposes. And there will of course be times when “good” itself is actually the right word, but that’s certainly not as often as I use it! Just as an artist might choose this particular shade of pink and no other for a petal of his rose, when we write or speak we can, if we choose, select from our array of words the one most fitting for that moment.
I know I could do better in this area. The problem is not only that I’m not familiar enough with many of the words in our language (not to mention their definitions), but also that too often I don’t take the time to really think about what my meaning is or how I can convey it well. Rather than trying to analyse the situation and find a word that actually expresses what I am thinking, I too often use a vague, general word and leave it at that. It can be shallow thinking as well as as a constricted vocabulary.
Life is complicated enough as it is, I know, and we don’t all have to try to become walking thesauruses! But I know that for my part, I can see both laziness and ignorance here, and I do think that it’s a shame that I don’t use language better. There are more important issues at stake in this world, I know. But how we use words isn’t a trivial matter either. In fact, there’s an inter–fascinating book that I’m reading about the importance of language and the words we use, but that might be a topic for another post.