Monday, October 7, 2013

Grammar ABCs: W is for Words

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” ― Mark Twain.

Words can have more than one basic meaning and some words sound similar but have a completely different denotation. For example:
   (Wrong) Older people often suffer infirmaries. (a place for the sick)
   (Right) Older people often suffer infirmities. (disabilities)

Some words are homonyms (sound-alikes) but mean very different things. For example, principal/principle or rain/reign/rein. 

Then there are words with similar but distinct meanings.
   (Wrong) Television commercials continuously (unceasingly) interrupt programming.
   (Right) Television commercials continually (regularly) interrupt programming.

Which vs That. 
"Which" is used to introduce non-restrictive clauses (extra but not essential information) such as in The leftover lettuce, which is in the refrigerator, would make a good salad. "Which" needs a comma preceding it. "That" always introduces restrictive clauses: We should use the lettuce that Susan bought. (This limits the lettuce to a specific lettuce.) "That" does not need a comma.

And some words have related meaning (denotation) but different connotations:
• Pride—sense of self-worth
• Vanity: excessive regard for oneself

 • Firm: steady, unchanging, unyielding
• Stubborn: unreasonable, bullheaded

• Enthusiasm: excitement
• Mania: excessive interest or desire

“For one word a man is often deemed to be wise, and for one word he is often deemed to be foolish. We should indeed be careful what we say.” — Confucius.

What are some words you've used or seen used that fall into these categories?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.


  1. Fantastic post, Heidi! Word choice seems to be a problem for a lot of writers if the number of times I encounter it during my editing work is any indication.

    One of the biggies I find is there/their/they're. Perhaps the most common, however, is one you mentioned: which and that. A lot of people don't seem to understand the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses...maybe that isn't emphasized in English classes today like it was when I was in school.

    Thank you for this powerful reminder that choosing the right word can make the difference between a mediocre read and a great read. No matter how good our story may be, it will suffer from the use of the wrong homonym or the inclusion of a wrong word. Perfection isn't possible in writing, but excellence is certainly an attainable goal. It only takes a little time to consult a dictionary — and the importance of using a competent editor to make sure our words are right cannot be overemphasized.

  2. Which and that trip me up everybtime. I have a special revision layer just for those words. :)

  3. In this regard, I want to share a resource that other Mac users may have overlooked—as had I, until my son pointed it out. The on-board OS 10 dictionary, accessed via the magnifying glass in the upper right-hand corner. Just type in a word. It provides commentary on words separated by fine shades of meaning, and some of these are written by David Foster Wallace! Using one of your examples, "pride," and related words:

    pride, arrogance, conceit, egotism, self-esteem, vainglory, vanity—
    If you take pride in yourself or your accomplishments, it means that you believe in your own worth, merit, or superiority—whether or not that belief is justified (she took pride in her accomplishments). When your opinion of yourself is exaggerated, you're showing conceit, a word that combines pride with self-obsession. If you like to be noticed and admired for your appearance or achievements, you're revealing your vanity, and if you show off or boast about your accomplishments, you're likely to be accused of vainglory, a somewhat literary term for a self-important display of power, skill, or influence. Arrogance is an overbearing pride combined with disdain for others (his arrogance led him to assume that everyone else would obey his orders), while egotism implies self-centeredness or an excessive preoccupation with yourself (blinded by egotism to the suffering of others). While no one wants to be accused of arrogance or egotism, there's a lot to be said for self-esteem, which may suggest undue pride but is more often used to describe a healthy belief in oneself and respect for one's worth as a person (she suffered from low self-esteem).

    I love it!

    1. What a great resource, Kathryn! I wonder if the pc has anything comparable.

  4. There are just too many tripping points for me to list here (something my editor would have gladly verified) ... also, most of the Confucius sayings I remember where learned in the 3rd grade, but one that I can repeat here: Man who jumps off cliff, jumps to conclusion!

  5. In Word, I'll click on a word and check for synonyms--you can have them show up in a sidebar--but in my final round of edits, I get out my big, thick Roget's Synonym Finder. My pet peeve is peak/peek/pique. I can't tell you how many times I've seen people offering a "sneak peak" at something. I understand it's probably a "fingers" error, but still ... take a minute to get it right. I've also seen "peddle to the metal." Haven't seen pedal to the medal yet, though.

    Terry's Place

    1. LOL, Terry, I have wanted to scream at the "sneak peak" invitations. If only they meant a trip to Colorado to see the great Pike's Peak. (smile)

    2. I've ready ARCs that offered me sneak piques. Books that really should have another revision. LOL.

    3. LOL, indeed. I have to stop and look at peak/peek to make sure I have the right one!


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