4 Tips for Choosing the Right Word

How do you choose the right word for the right situation? The most powerful words tend to be the shortest and, not coincidentally, the ones most basic to the English language. Words like kin, thanks and small, for instance, are deeply rooted in Old English before A.D. 1000, while words like relatives (from the 1600s), gratitude (in use by 1450) and tiny (from the 1500s) are from succeeding generations. A long-time editor gives more advice for word
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Here are a few thoughts on choosing the right word from "English Through the Ages," a reference book by William Brohaugh:

  1. Keep word and phrase choice appropriate to the context. For example, streetwise characters in a novel wouldn't likely use technical jargon or acronyms. Nor would the writer of a novel about streetwise characters. One lesson here is to let word choice in the narrative conform at a certain level to the word choice of the people populating the narrative. For instance, formal narration lacking contractions wouldn't serve a story about rural folk, nor would colloquial narration serve a story about high society — even if the characters themselves spoke completely in context.
  2. Listen for what sounds right. I'm thinking of the TV mini-series Merlin, in which a medieval character states, "My mind is made up." I don't have reference to when the idiom "make up your mind" was first used, but I suspect it wasn't in use in Arthurian times, and even if it was, it sounds modern. Better the character have said something that sounded a bit archaic, like "My mind is firm."
  3. The precise word isn't necessarily the right word. Susurration might be more precise than murmur in a given passage, but if the word is confusing or (see above) at odds with the context or the atmosphere of the story, a less-precise word might actually be the better choice. This is true only if "less-precise" isn't synonymous with "wrong." A less-precise word can still be the right word.
  4. The most powerful words tend to be the shortest and, not coincidentally, the ones most basic to the English language. Said Sir Winston Churchill, "Broadly speaking, the short words are best, and the old words best of all." Words like kin, thanks and small, for instance, are deeply rooted in Old English before A.D. 1000, while words like relatives (from the 1600s), gratitude (in use by 1450) and tiny (from the 1500s) are from succeeding generations. But again, it's best to choose the word that communicates your point while evoking or echoing the tone of your manuscript, and if it's the longer word, so be it.
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