Monthly Archives: October 2011

The best word

In election season, we hear many euphemisms. Speakers and writers try to soften messages and distract us from reality. We must decipher terms such as “revenue enhancement,” used instead of direct words such as “taxes.”

Too often, though, writers and speakers use imprecise words not because they are deliberately trying to obscure a message, but because of laziness. Without giving much thought to choosing the word that will best express an idea, they settle for the nearest word that will do. In some cases, they choose a word that has been repeated so frequently that its use has become automatic, even if a different word would more precisely convey the intended meaning.

For example, the flabby word “major” is used often, and in many cases it’s ambiguous and less than clear. In the sentence, “The board plans to make major changes,” a more specific word might be important, significant, critical, sweeping, broad, extensive, far-reaching, widespread, or costly.

The related word “majority” is often the wrong choice too. “Most” is the right word in most (not “in the majority of”) cases.

And now, heaven help us, the word “major” has been made into a trendy slang adverb: “majorly.” I have heard this made-up modifier spoken in casual conversation by people under age 30. Recently, I even encountered the word in a business document that I edited. An educated person actually typed the phrase, “majorly renovated.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as I substituted “extensively.”

“Get” is another overused word. Meaning might be more precisely conveyed with acquire, obtain, procure, become, develop, progress, catch, come to be, understand, or a dozen other expressions.

I noticed the word selections made by news outlets in the illustration below. Some news organizations made interesting choices.

Sometimes writers use the first word that comes to mind, instead of aiming for the most suitable word. The English language has a rich vocabulary. We can do better than choosing words that are vague or that have become diluted through overuse.

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Filed under clear writing, editing, grammar, word choice