Word Choice and Use
Poet, editor, essayist John Ciardi lists ways a word means:
- A word is a feeling. – We choose words for the feeling they convey. You choose the word you hope will trigger the response you want.
- A word involves the muscles – How does the word feel in your mouth and on your face when you say it? There will be an echo of that feel in the reader’s mind. “Splat” and “Thud”, “Dear” and “Love” not only sound different, they feel different.
- A word is a history – knowing the histories of words and phrases can help you choose the word you want. In fact, it can help you be correct. Ex: Does my hero feel pity or compassion? My thesaurus says the words mean the same, but my dictionary tells me that “pity” derives from the word “piety” and that “compassion” derives from the word “suffer.” It makes a difference. If it only makes a difference to you, it will still show up in the book’s general tone.
- A word is a picture – Take pity and compassion again. Now that you know their roots, they create different pictures in your mind: Someone showing sorrow for another’s pain because it’s the decent thing to do as opposed to someone showing sorrow for another’s pain because he feels their suffering.
Finally, consider Figurative Language. Whether or not you use it and how you use it, affects tone. The two forms of figurative language are:
- imagined similarities: metaphors (identifies one thing with another: “He’s a dirty rat.” “He’s crabgrass on the lawn of my life.” “He’s a serpent, hissing and striking at anyone who comes near him.”) Similes (uses “like,” “as,” or “as if”: “The car looked like a pile of junk on wheels.” “The car was as battered-looking as a boxer after one too many rounds.” “The car looked as if it had escaped from the metal compressor with only seconds to spare.”) Allusions (a reference to something else: “Glendas.” “ancient yellow beasts” – Sphinx, who killed you if you failed to solve its riddle.)
- suggestive associations: one word is linked with another (golden/youth, happiness, wealth; or bird/freedom)
Don’t try to force figurative language. If it comes hard for you, maybe it isn’t part of your voice. Word choice and use should grow naturally out of your voice, your material and your treatment of the material. They should be appropriate to your subject and, if you have a theme, they should be appropriate to your theme.
Remember this quote from Mark Twain:
The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
– Letter to George Bainton, 10/15/1888
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Look around and pick a common object. Try different ways to describe it, giving a potential reader different feelings about it through your word choice and use.