Monday, February 6, 2012

Use the Write Word

Post by Jenny

The other day at my son’s basketball game, I thought I heard the little girl next to me ask her mother for protest pencils. A moment later, I realized she had said princess pencils, but I already had the image in my head of hand-lettered posters reading “Occupy Preschool” or “Make Cookies, Not War.”

A close-but-not-quite word can lead a reader’s mind in an unintended direction, with unintended results. The English language is full of more sticky word traps than any spell- and grammar-check can identify, so every writer should have a trusted reference guide at the ready. The following examples come from my handy 100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses & Misuses from the editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries.

Homonyms are old news—we’ve all known about them since elementary school, right?—but they can still be devious. Complement/compliment, stationary/stationery, principal/principle…I hope I’m not the only one who has to double check a usage from time to time.

Other words are just similar enough to be confusing. Blatant and flagrant are often interchanged, with the distinction being that blatant “emphasizes failure to conceal the act,” and flagrant “emphasizes the serious wrongdoing inherent in the offense.” Flaunt means to exhibit ostentatiously; flout means to show contempt for. And how about seasonal and seasonable? The former means of or dependent on a particular season. The latter means in keeping with the time or season; timely. That’s a subtle difference, but editors get paid to spot subtle differences. Ditto for wreak and wreck, prescribe and proscribe, uninterested and disinterested…and the list goes on.

Then there are the words that are flat-out used incorrectly. Have you ever heard someone claim to peruse quickly? It’s difficult to do that, as peruse means to read or examine thoroughly or with great care. Penultimate sounds as though it should mean something even better than ultimate. But, alas, it means next to last, as in the next-to-last step or next-to-last syllable.

So, take care, writers. Make sure you know whether your main character infers or implies, guards the perimeter or parameter, lays down or lies down. It can make all the difference.

Do certain tricky words trip you up?


Dean K Miller said...

Thanks for splaining this so well. I was confuscious about this for a long time.

Gotta go, time for a nice after dinner desert.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Excellent post, Jenny. I keep a good dictionary close by at all times to double-check my own word choices.

Kay Theodoratus said...

Wasn't their an Mrs Malaprop in some early play or other? You've given me some ideas on delineating a character that I have fleshed out yet.

Jenny said...

Thanks, Dean and Pat. Kay, the name sounds familiar...

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