The Right Word

The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug. Mark Twain.

Poetry evokes vivid imagery and strong emotions through careful word choice. The right word appeals to the senses, such that you can almost hear, see, smell, taste, or touch the subject matter. You have to go beneath the surface of the word and actually experience it. It touches an emotional chord. The right word is simple, sincere, and direct. It is strong and clear, with little or no ambiguity of meaning, It makes sense in the context in which it is used. The gap between adequate communication and exceptional communication may be as simple as putting the right word in the right place.

The right word is used in the right place, at the right time.

Theodore Tilton wrote in his Memorial to Elizabeth Barrett Browning the following:

She knew the true art of choosing words. The rule to use Saxon words instead of Latin is easy to give and hard to follow: nor is it always the best rule, though it is generally. Words are instruments of music: an ignorant man uses them for jargon, but when a master touches them they have unexpected life and soul. Some words sound out like drums; some breathe memories sweet as flutes; some call like a clarionet; some shout a charge like trumpets; some are as sweet as children's talk; others rich as a mother's answering back. The words which have universal power are those that have been keyed and chorded in the great orchestral chamber of the human heart. Some words touch as many notes at a stroke as when an organist strikes ten fingers upon a keyboard. There are single words which contain life-histories; and to hear them spoken is like the ringing of chimes. He who knows how to touch and handle skillfully the home-words of his mother-tongue, need ask nothing of style. No finer instance of this skill is found in the whole realm of good English, out of Shakespeare, than in the writings of Mrs. Browning, particularly in those which pay homage to the affections.

Denotations and Connotations

The denotation of a word is its literal, dictionary meaning.

Word connotations are the emotional meanings that we attach to words. These can be positive, neutral, or negative. The appropriate one fits the thought, message or imagery you intend to convey.

Finding the right word.

  • Take any word.
  • Get all synonyms (words meaning almost the same) for the word. A thesaurus works well for this.
  • Look for subtle differences and shades of meaning in the imagery and feelings of the words.
  • Would you call the words positive, neutral or negative?
  • Which ones fit the mood or scene you are trying to convey?
  • Does the word make sense in the context that it is used?
  • Does appeal to the senses and emotions of the reader?
  • Does appeal to the logical intelligence of the reader?
  • Does it phonetically appeal to the ear, or does it screech like nails on a blackboard?
  • Is it spelled correctly?
  • is it a commonly misused, confused, or mispronounced word.
  • Is it used in the right place, at the right time?

What's in a word?

My husband says letters. It rings like dirt.

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