Word choice: How mix-ups can muddle a writer’s meaning

Linguistic sound-alikes and errant prefixes often confuse readers and jeopardize their faith in what the author wants to impart. Here’s the first installment on judicious word selection.

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Guidance on word choice

Word choice can make or break your messaging—and even your credibility.

Selecting just the right word is challenging at times, but it’s also great fun. Sometimes, though, writers overreach and end up misusing a word or subbing in an etymological cousin that doesn’t quite belong.

Other times, a writer might overstretch a metaphor or overuse a literary device, such as alliteration—for which, like horseradish, a little goes a long way. (Yes, there’s alliteration in the headline; it’s nowhere else in this article, though. OK, fine. It’s in the byline, too; blame my parents for that.)

In this first of two installments, we’ll look at some common missteps. Next time, we’ll explore the fun side of ferreting out precise wording to land your message with power and clarity.

The perilous extra syllable

We’ve probably all cringed hearing—or, horrors, reading—“irregardless.” It’s symptomatic of a tendency to think that adding a syllable fortifies a root word.

To that point, penultimate does not mean “extra ultimate” (whatever superlative might be intended by such a construction). Penultimate means next-to-last, as in: November is the penultimate month of the year.

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