Words: Choosing, Selecting, Deciding, Opting For

Rule 3 in my Twelve Rules of Writing went like this: ~

3. Words are interchangeable, it’s what you mean that’s important.

The English language was created to mislead you.  Take the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  Clearly, the word ‘right’ is misspelled, since ‘write’ goes with ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ should be paired with ‘left’.

Also, ‘their’, ‘they’re’ and ‘there’ should be synonymous and interchangeable.  Feel free to impose your own logic on the language as many people have before you.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the English language was indeed created to mislead.  The language is complex, inconsistent and, at times, preverse. Take the words bough, through, thought, cough and rough. In five similar words, the letters ‘ough’ are sounded out as five different vowel sounds.  Even for native English speakers, this makes spelling a matter of learning and familiarity, not of systematic understanding. This can make it seem daunting.

My comment about imposing logic is not without grounds, either. In some ways English isn’t one language, but many.  In a survey done by computer in 1973, it was estimated that English was in origin: 28% old Norman, 28% Latin, 25% Old Germanic and 5% Greek with the rest being made up of fragments from elsewhere or even made-up words – the word television, for instance, is a composite of the Greek TELE, meaning far and the Latin VISIO, to see in person.

To put this in perspective, Basic English includes about 850 words, and the General Service List (compiled of words from which most English can be understood) includes about 2,000 words.  If you have excellent facility with English then your vocabulary might be as high as 60,000 to even 100,000 words – still a fraction of language as a whole which may be over 600,000 words.

That brings us to meaning: ~

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” ~ Through the Looking Glass: Lewis Carroll.

This may be true for Humpty Dumpty, but writing is about conveying meaning and building a shared understanding between writer and reader. When your writing is published, you send it out into the world without the chance to clarify its meaning. People will either understand it or they won’t. It’s rare, particularly with fiction, for the reader to keep a dictionary handy in case they encounter a word they don’t understand, and if they take a moment to look up a word then they’ve broken out of the story, de-pacing the plot and breaking the suspension of disbelief.

You might think, therefore, that it is best to use only the simplest of language, to choose words perhaps from the basic list of 850 and therefore keep your reader’s attention. That has its own risks, though, as readers tire of the same words being used repetitively, the prose lacking depth and colour, the character voices all the same.

Too little and you risk boredom and disconnection – too much and your prose will become purple and elaborate beyond the needs of your story

This is the dilemma that writers face. They must choose a word, a phrase, an epithet, which illustrates the meaning while maintaining the rhythm and tone of the story. Each choice is crucial and characterises the writer’s skill in communicating the plot while depicting the characters in the context of the scene. It doesn’t always have to be a word the reader would know – context is all and, with skill, the writer can build a framework around an esoteric word to support a reader who doesn’t have the word in their vocabulary. This in turn expands their lexicon, building in richness and variety.

Developing these skills means reading, not as a reader – immersed in the story and blind to the words – but as a writer, examining the author’s word selection and deciding whether you would have chosen a better word, something more apposite. Give yourself a moment to appreciate a new or unexpected word-choice and become conscious of timbre, rhythm, tone, pace and harmonic form.

Develop an interest in etymology, the origins of words, for they have surprises in store for you. Look up, for instance, the evolution of the word ‘nice’. Its usage today is in contrast to its history, and that gives it a new context and a depth of meaning when you use it. A nice shot, a nice day, a nice cake, playing nice, niceness.

To write well, you need to learn to love words. it’s one of the subtler pleasures of writing to find the right word for the moment and use it sparingly and precisely, delivering exactly the nuance you require. It has the satisfaction of an accurate shot or a dive that leaves only ripples, something done perfectly and apparently without effort. Like many things it comes easier with practice and repetition, but it takes concentration and effort, just like that perfect dive.

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