Why and how to pinpoint your meaning with proper word choice

Effective usage is not simply about avoiding the wrong term or phrase. Precision and power rev up your text and keep readers driving on to the finish line: your overarching message.

Writing with precision

Strong verbs, striking modifiers and vivid nouns will excite your audience and land your message.

In our previous installment on word choice, we examined misused words and tepid phrases that bog down text and send audiences fleeing.

This time, let’s explore the expanses of the dictionary and go spelunking in the thesaurus (Indiana Jones fedora optional) to discover all sorts of linguistic wonders to delight and captivate your readers.

We’ll start by injecting life into common, lifeless phrasing—with help from a couple of renowned writers:

Stephen King: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”

Mary Oliver: “Look for verbs of muscle, adjectives of exactitude.”

So, let’s avoid hell—and even bypass purgatory—by ditching adverb-weakened phrases in favor of “verbs of muscle”.

Negatively affect: Damage, undermine, tarnish, hurt, sabotage

Review harshly: Condemn, scathe, excoriate, eviscerate, sear

Respond positively to: Laud, extol, celebrate, lionize, acclaim

Handle badly: Botch, boot, bungle, mangle, fumble

In half the word count, you get five times the impact. (Your impact may vary.)

Likewise, forms of to be often elicit slings and arrows, and for good reason: They sap power from your writing.

Consider these alternatives:

Be quiet: Clam up

Be respectful: Revere

Be happy: Exult

Other weakening verbs—get, do, take, have, make—might also draw brickbats. Happily, there are alternatives:

Get comfortable: Acclimate, assimilate

Do a renovation: Renovate, overhaul

Take a look at: Review, analyze, comb, scrutinize (or just look at)

Have a conversation: Converse, confer, debate, examine

Make an argument: Argue, assert, declare, posit, contend, insist

Here again, stronger word choice yields economy of language.

Context is crucial, of course, so simply tossing a dart at a list of synonyms and calling it a day won’t deliver the precision you need to pinpoint your message.

Consider the various meanings of fare and of light.

What’s the fare? Well, it could be $15.50, or perhaps a pastrami sandwich with pickles and chips.

Would you light a stage actor as you would light a candle?

If you simply pluck a word from the thesaurus without cross-referencing the selected synonym in a dictionary, you run the risk of paying a cabby in pastrami (which she might appreciate) or setting an actor afire (which he probably would not).

Choose wisely.

After all, crossing a shady lane would be far safer than crossing a shady politician.


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