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Choosing the Right Word

May 18, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 104

As an author I oftentimes labor over selecting just the right word that expresses the feeling I'm trying to convey to my readers. I wish that modern-day reporters and columnists would do the same. The proliferation of media outlets has not had the positive effect on writing styles that one might have expected. Some pundits attribute this to a long slide in educational standards at our schools, the so-called "dumbing-down" of curriculums. Others have blamed the rampant shorthand used in social media, such as texting and Twitter. Still others blame the downward slide of the printed word, and the resultant loss of editorial jobs at traditional outlets. Whatever the cause may be, readers are assaulted by typos, bad grammar, and sloppy writing-on a daily basis.

It wasn't that long ago, historically speaking, that a person's social class was judged by the way he spoke. A person's manner of speech was an indicator of education. Many now believe such judgments to be snobbery, and are happy to say good-riddance to the practice. But, has the pendulum swung too far?

Many writers of news articles might have utilized a thesaurus to good advantage. It leads me to wonder whether the authors made an unconscious mistake, or actually believed they were using good English.

As an example, one of the myriad stories about the massive quake and tsunami in Japan led off with the following: The unprecedented 9.0 quake... Well, was it really "unprecedented? Hardly. There have been at least three recorded quakes of greater magnitude, and one of the same size, just since 1960. So, what word or phrase was the reporter searching for? Could it have been rare? Or, extraordinarily severe? In any event, it wasn't unprecedented, especially since Japan sits on one of the so-called Rings of Fire, and regularly experiences temblors of varying strength.

An additional quake article mentioned that one gentleman went on an heroic search for his family. Indeed he expended an arduous, even herculean effort, but was it really heroic? Many thousands of aggrieved survivors did the same thing, out of obligations to their relatives, and were not dubbed heroes.

It disconcerts me that "heroic" is used so cavalierly. Athletes regularly perform "heroic deeds," like hitting a home-run in the bottom of the ninth, or making a circus catch in the waning seconds of a football game. It leads one to wonder: What actually constitutes a heroic act? The dictionary says a hero is a person of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his/her brave deeds and noble qualities. To me, a hero connotes a person who acts unselfishly, with very little forethought, in a benevolent purpose that puts his/her safety at risk. Playing a game just doesn't seem to fit that definition.

On the other hand, those Japanese nuclear plant workers, who placed their very lives at risk stemming the leakage of radiation, and thereby preventing harm to others, performed heroically. They may yet pay the ultimate price for their heroism.

Other words, more serious in connotation, that get my dander up are insurgent, militant, or their dirty cousin terrorist. Insurgent carries a pejorative implication simply because we have been conditioned to react in fear or revulsion whenever we hear it. Again, the dictionary defines an insurgent as a person who rises in forcible opposition to lawful authority, especially a person who engages in armed resistance to a government or to the execution of its laws. Militant, whose antonyms include peaceful, calm, and tolerant, also conjures up negative feelings. These words are often used in reportage coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan to depict our "enemies" as uncompromising, unsuitable as negotiating partners, and given to extreme violence. Yet our politicians often adamantly proclaim their position on a particular issue to be non-negotiable. The media never calls our guys militants.

Let's see if I have this right. The US invaded both of those sovereign countries without a declaration of war or even a plausible excuse. A significant number of the native population opposed our intervention, which made them militants, insurgents, or worse-terrorists. On the other hand, when one of our servicemen commits a heinous act-such as murdering innocent civilians-he is never labeled a terrorist. The only difference, it seems, is the nationality of the perpetrator.

In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, I wonder how the US became the lawful authority? Is this standing valid if we did so by unilateral force? As a nation, we have been against these very same acts when done by others we don't consider friends-like the Russians in Chechnya, for example. When does it become unlawful for a citizen of an invaded country to fight the invader? Can he do so without becoming an insurgent, militant or terrorist?

There is no need for more examples, of which there are many. As a writer, perhaps I'm overly sensitive to the choice of words. I know I spend way too much time at it. However, if you need to pick an adjective to describe much of the writing we see today, feel free to choose the right one from this list. Sloppy, mediocre, clumsy, careless, inaccurate, slipshod, uneducated... take your pick.

Raff is an author who took early retirement from a career in the computer industry to pursue a writing career. He has two non-fiction books in print. Information about him and his work may be found at

Source: EzineArticles
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