Precision in Language Choices

readmorewritemorethinkmorebemore: July 2010

readmorewritemorethinkmorebemore: July 2010

Precision in Language Choices

Choosing the precise word or phrase remains a challenge for all authors, whether they write professionally or for their own pleasure. The majority of those who make a living from writing have knowledge of words they never use in their creations. I write novels based in the Regency Period (1811-1820). Contemporary words/phrases such as Google, 3D, iPhone, and mouse are replaced by acquiesce, obeisance, imprudence, and forbearance. From this quick example, one can easily observe that the number of words of which a person uses in his writing falls short of the number of which he is familiar. Add to that fact, how quickly the English language changes, and an author/poet will find it difficult to keep up with the flexibility of the language. Yet, some basics persist. It is the writer’s responsibility to use the best word(s) for a particular situation. Instead of choosing a word, it is important to choose the word that expresses the exact meaning he intends. (For the examples below, I give credit to my college journalism professor. These examples remain in my spiral notebook even after all these years.)

That particular professor is known to send off detailed emails to authors to point out usage errors. His influence had me recently sending a quick message to the local news station which reported that two planes nearly collided (one in take off and one in landing). The news anchor called the incident a “near miss.” My email reminded the news group that a “near miss” means one hit something. A “near hit” means someone avoided the impact. 

Affect, Effect
Affect is a verb meaning to influence.
Effect is a noun meaning result.

Influence, Impact (two words often associated with affect/effect)
Influence refers to the ability to cause desired effects.
Impact means to strike or to collide; to wedge in.

Acute, Chronic
Acute indicates intenseness; that something has become immediately critical.
Chronic means recurring or continuing over a considerable time.

Adapt, Adopt, Adept
Adapt means to adjust to a changing situation.                                                                          Adopt means to accept something as one’s own.                                                                    Adept means having skills.

Adverse, Averse
Adverse means unfavorable.
Averse means having a distaste for something.

Aggravate, Annoy, Irritate
Aggravate means to make worse or more troublesome. It is used to refer to things.
Annoy means to make angry, usually through repetition. Use it to refer to people.
Irritate means to provoke to impatience or anger.

Agree To, Agree With
Agree to is used to refer to things.
Agree with is used to refer to people.

Character, Reputation
Character is the sum of a person’s behavior and his moral standards.
Reputation is other people’s perception of the person.

Each Other, One Another
Each other is used when two people, places or things are involved.
One another is used for three or more.

Cynic, Skeptic
Cynic refers to a person who doubts or denies the goodness of human nature and does so in a sarcastic manner.
Skeptic refers to a person who has a doubting, questioning attitude. He wants evidence to prove his ideas.

Allusion, Delusion, Illusion
Allusion is an indirect mention.
Delusion is to believe in something even when evidence shows otherwise.
Illusion is a false or misleading idea or image.

Expect, Anticipate
Expect is used when no preparation is made.
Anticipate is used when preparation has been made for something that will occur.

Smell, Odor, Aroma
Smell is a neutral word depending on the surrounding words.
Odor refers to something unpleasant.
Aroma refers to something pleasant.

Eager, Anxious
Eager shows impatient desire.
Anxious indicates worry or concern.

Appraise, Apprise
Appraise means to determine the value.
Apprise means to notify or inform.

Cement, Concrete
Cement is the powder used as an adhesive ingredient in concrete. (Note! Cement is not a verb.)

Doctor is a title, not a profession. It should be used generically. Use physician, minister, professor, etc., for more specific descriptions.

Pretense, Pretext
Pretense refers to a false appearance or action used purposely for deception.
Pretext is a false or fabricated reason, developed to hide the truth.

Because, Since
Most writers make no distinction in use between these two words. However, there are certain differences that should be addressed.
Because is used to indicate a cause or a reason.
Since refers to time, meaning between then and now.

To be fair, English is full of such traps. After all, I can deposit my paycheck in a bank, I can sit on the riverbank to fish, or I can bank a basketball off the backboard. English is a language where one’s nose runs and his feet smell. It possesses a deceptively complex structure, but it is well worth knowing English’s subtleties.

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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5 Responses to Precision in Language Choices

  1. carolcork says:

    “Different to” and “different from” is one I always have difficulty with. I’m never sure which the right one to use.

    • My stickler is “on behalf of” or “in behalf of,” Carol.
      In both my English classes and my journalism classes, I was taught that “different from” is the correct form, not “different than” or “different to.”

      • carolcork says:

        Eileen, I was taught it is “on behalf of”. Thank you for the clarification and I will use “different from” in future.

  2. carolcork says:

    Regina, so sorry, I did it again and put the wrong name. I regularly comment on Eileen Dandashi’s blog as well. 🙂

    • No problem, Carol. I’ve been a bit distracted myself of late.
      BTW, “in behalf of” means for the benefit of, as in “The school’s fundraiser is in behalf of a local cancer patient.” “On behalf of” means in place of, as in “Speaking on behalf of her client, the attorney entered a plea.”

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