Vocabulary demands precision

Published 8:54 am Monday, September 27, 2010

I recently joked with a university writing class that a “synonym” is the word you use when you don’t know how to spell the other one. No, they reacted, it’s two words that mean the same thing. No, it isn’t this either. When two words appear to mean the same thing, there is usually at least a shade of difference (nuance) between them, and choosing the correct word to express a specific thought can make the difference between being understood or misunderstood. The greatest vocabulary need we have is not to increase the number of words we know but to know the precise word from those we already know to express our exact meaning.

The check-out counter sign can read “Less than 10 items” and be understood even though “fewer” should have been used. You know what is meant, whether you care.

If you confuse, as many do, “compose” with “comprise” or “flaunt with “flout,” it probably won’t make a big difference. However, the confusion of certain other synonyms not only constitutes incorrect language but actually lead to wrong or incorrect behavior.

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A person embarrasses himself and opens self to ridicule by saying, “I am “nauseous’” rather than “nauseated.”

It isn’t sufficient (not “enough”), to “expect” danger; we must “anticipate” danger-or, surely, we will suffer it.

It isn’t sufficient to “recognize” love; we must “realize” love-or we will never love or beloved.

It isn’t sufficient to be “correct” about facts; we must be “right” in our behavior-or we will fail in life.

It isn’t sufficient to “decline” to sin; we must “refuse” to sin-or, surely, we will.

It isn’t sufficient to “convince” customers to buy our products; we must “persuade” them-or we won’t make the sale.

“Nauseated” is a past participle that indicates what has happened to the person; “nauseous” is an adjective that describes the person. You can “expect” a person to slug you when you insult him; you “anticipate” it when you duck. “Realize” means to “bring to reality,” e.g., to realize a profit on an investment. Most of the time “realize” is used when “recognize” is meant. “Correct” and “incorrect” (or “mistaken”) concern facts; “right” and “wrong” express a moral quality. “Decline” is used when response is optional; “refuse” expresses reaction when under obligation. To “convince” a person is to change his mind; to “persuade” is to change behavior.

Offer your friend in the electric chair empathy, but don’t promise “sympathy.” The former means “to feel along side of,” to recognize and care. The later is to “feel along with” or “the same as,” for his feelings to become yours. To stand by his side is empathy; to hold his hand his sympathy.

Don’t confuse “imply” and “infer.” There is a big difference between “anxious” and “eager.” So is there between “normal” and “usual” and between “worth” and “value.”

Most dictionaries aren’t especially helpful in learning the distinctions between synonyms because they don’t contrast them, and thesauri (technical plural of “thesaurus”) are actually confusing because they confound them to give convenient substitutes (such as when you don’t know how to spell the other one). I use “Webster’s New Dictionary of Synonyms.”

Why should you use precise words for what you mean when “nobody” else does? You want to be innocent of misstatement even if “nobody” else is. It also enables you to determine the precise meaning of those who speak carelessly despite what they say-even if they don’t.

When you use the precise word for what you mean, you are on solid ground and innocent of misleading or deceiving. If another fails to understand, the guilt rests on this person.

Let’s not worry about adding words to our vocabularies, but work at learning how to use precisely the words already there.