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.

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.

Nor does infamous mean “exceedingly famous.” It’s synonymous with notorious.

Decades ago, the word inflammable—meaning “able to be inflamed, or catch fire”—caused confusion, as people thought the word indicated the opposite, just as inconceivable means “not conceivable.” (“You keep using that word…”) The in- prefix in the latter suggests negation. Not so in the former.

So, for clarity and safety, trucks carrying petroleum and other such volatile fluids were labeled with a new coinage: flammable. Vessels for fluids that were not combustible were marked nonflammable. The changes inflamed linguistic purists, no doubt.

Close, but no cigarette

Often, even seasoned writers and editors will gloss over its/it’s or their/there/they’re or your/you’re or then/than/that as we proofread our own or others’ texts. Such mistakes are oversize typos, often born of muscle memory. (That’s why reading text aloud or even mouthing the word silently helps catch such goofs in the proofreading phase.)

In other cases, though, verbal cousins find their way into text because of a writer’s misunderstanding of their meaning. Consider the following:

  • Gourmet/gourmand. They are not interchangeable—far from it. A gourmet is an epicure, a connoisseur of fine food. A gourmand is a glutton. (Some dictionaries offer epicure as a secondary meaning for gourmand, but it’s better to be crystal clear on this one.)
  • Compliment/complement. Dubbing someone a gourmand is not a compliment. A wine pairing is also not a compliment, but instead a complement—something that completes another component. If the wine is on the house, it would be both complimentary (free of charge) and complementary (serving to enhance the meal). Remember: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so the proper wine pairing is essential.
  • Faze/phase. Faze means to disturb or bother: “Lucinda’s taunts didn’t seem to faze Jeremiah.” A phase is a stage in a process or a period in one’s development: “Bertram’s in that ‘girls have cooties’ phase. Sadly, he’s 37.”
  • Flesh/flush. You flesh out a concept; you might flush out a dirty garbage can.
  • Peak/peek/pique. A peek at a peak could pique your interest in mountain climbing.
  • Principal/principle. A principal might have an abiding principle for running a business or school. To keep them straight, remember: The principal is our pal.
  • Gibe/jibe/jive. To gibe is to deride. Jibe is a sailing term; think of jib, a type of sail. Jibe also can connote agreement: Their separate accounts jibed, so their alibi seems solid. Jive has a few meanings—a dance style; musicians’ slang; something phony or worthless, as in, “Don’t gimme that jive.”

I always look up that last bunch, just to be sure—and that’s the principle principal takeaway here. The dictionary is your most essential tool for getting it right. Cross-referencing it with a thesaurus will keep your message clear and your writing powerful.


2 Responses to “Word choice: How mix-ups can muddle a writer’s meaning”

    Lyriel Bradley says:

    As a former editor/proofreader, I applaud you.
    This is well-written throughout and very helpful for all writers. I especially appreciated your choice of examples.

    Thanks for posting this article!

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