The Right Word At The Right Time

How often is it OK to shriek at someone like a banshee who’s caught fire because said someone persists in using the wrong words for what they’re trying to communicate?

This is a serious question. Not even asking for a friend. I need to know, because this is a situation I am finding myself in a LOT lately.

It’s cropping up in casual conversations, in editing projects, even in published material I’m reading.

Where I can, I make my best efforts to gently correct the misuse. But mostly they either don’t care or don’t remember, and I am left feeling like my nerves have been scrubbed with a steel brush because they used begrieved when they meant bequeathed.

Holy mother of baby divinities, does this make me crazy.

Precision is so important in communication. I mentioned it briefly earlier in the week, but it’s worth exploring more.

It might the most important part of anything we do with words — if we’re not going to say precisely what we mean, why say anything at all?

Using the correct words removes the possibility of being misunderstood. It paints a vivid and accurate picture in the recipient’s mind. It adds energy and interest to what you’re saying.

Think about the difference between saying ‘he ran down the street’ and ‘he sprinted down the street.’

Running and sprinting infer different things: not just a difference in speed, but a difference in intent.

Running is often something we do recreationally, without urgency. But sprinting has a desperate edge to it, all the usual moderation stripped away.

Or the difference between crying and wailing. Crying infers distress, of course, but wailing infers distress so all-consuming that the wailer’s sense of decorum is abandoned.

Mark Twain put it like this:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

This is the magic of the English language. There is a word for everything, and it takes only a fraction more effort to find a precise word than an approximate one.

It only takes a moment — or the approximately 0.68 seconds to return a Google search — to find an energetic, descriptive, impactful word that means exactly what you want it to.

The English language has one of the biggest vocabularies in the world. We have over 171,000 words to choose from. There is a word for everything.

Now, everyone gets confused sometimes, or gets their words backwards or says one word when they were thinking another. No big deal.

What is a VERY BIG DEAL is when a word or phrase is consistently misused widely enough that it develops another meaning or even starts to replace the correct usage.

For example, ‘I would of done it but I didn’t’ instead of ‘I would have done it but I didn’t.’

(This phrase is in the past perfect subjunctive, and ‘of’, being a preposition, doesn’t have a function in this sentence structure.)

You might think I’m being precious or persnickety about this. But there are real-world consequences to understanding how to use the language correctly.

Literacy levels have profound effects on earning capacity, social mobility and even life expectancy. In the wrong company, incorrect usage can act as a brand, highlighting difference and inequality.

It has massive economic impact on society at large, and when you get to society at large, flaws in the rhetoric can be catastrophic.

When you use the wrong words in public, large groups of people get the wrong idea.

Trump’s ‘stand down, stand by’ directive to the right-wing extremist group Proud Boys a few months ago is a prime example of this. He argued later that he didn’t know that ‘stand by’ means ‘be ready to act when instructed.’

His claim of incorrect usage didn’t stop the group from taking his comment as an endorsement and a precursor to violence on Capitol Hill soon after.

There are many reasons precision in our words matters so much.

It makes our writing far more interesting and impactful.

It creates clarity and reduces the risk that the words behave in an unexpected way once released.

And it protects us from the worst elements of ourselves: the suspicion, the distrust, the fear.

So in your words — whether you’re writing or speaking — take the extra moment. Cast around to find the choice that captures your intent precisely.

There will usually be a variety to choose from; you don’t have to break a sweat over it. But choose actively, consciously, and if you’re not quite sure you’ve got something right, remember that the answer is only 0.68 seconds away.