To Be Precise…

Most words have a number of synonyms – e.g., prudent is closely akin to wise – but many writers and speakers throw synonymous words around with abandon. Prudent is generally is used interchangeably with wise, but a dictionary check of the varying senses of these two words will show that prudent carries a hint of “shrewd.” Fine point? Yes, but fine points are fundamental not only to a sound vocabulary but also to better writing and speaking.

The enemy of precision is a variation on the vogue word: what I call a “vacuum word” – an old friend that’s been around forever but all of a sudden starts suctioning up synonyms. Take the word address. Time was when we addressed an envelope or an audience. Now we “address” a question, a task, a difference of opinion, and so on, ad nauseam. Might there be more clarity of purpose if we were to variously study (learn about), scrutinize (study more carefully), analyze (examine from every angle), confront (challenge), sort out (untangle), or fix (solve) a problem or situation, be it benign or critical? The same goes for empower, which too easily takes the place of delegate, authorize, commission, invest, enable, and permit.

Truth be told, a good vocabulary has more to do with understanding and appreciating the differences in synonymous words as it does with the number of words stashed in your brain – the reason it’s smart to renew your acquaintance with the dictionary.

“Wrong Pick” Patrol

As winter wanes, I just heard something in a weather report that bears repeating – but as a wordie’s DO NOT. And it gave me an idea: Anytime my ear catches a sort-of synonym that doesn’t make the grade, turn it into a little lesson of its own.

Herewith Exhibit A:

“So far, Chicago has had 22 days below zero and a barrage of broken pipes.”

The noun barrage carries the connotation of swift and forceful motion, and for good reason. Over the course of the twentieth century its definition expanded from “a line of close-set artillery fire to screen and protect friendly troops” to “a vigorous or rapid outpouring or projection of many things at once.” But pipes simply break and just sit there. A more precise pick for the weather reporter would have been glut, plethora, surfeit, or the subtly “pipey” overflow.

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