The Difference Between the Right Word and the Almost Right Word

One thing I forgot to mention in yesterday’s post (More About Adverbs) is that when you use a thesaurus, you have to be really careful about changing meanings. No two words in the world mean the exact same thing- that’s why there are two different words. Even “he shouted” and “he yelled” have slightly different connotations. But more often than not, that slight difference in meaning doesn’t matter, and you can interchange those words throughout your writing.

But there are times when the thesaurus gives you a word that doesn’t make sense in your context, or, even if it does make sense, it chops up your writing instead of letting it flow.

Example: Her heart was pounding. “Are you sure?” she asked.

A thesaurus option: Her heart was pounding. “Are you sure?” she inquired.

Okay, so they mean the same thing. “To ask” is the same as “to inquire.” But “inquired” sounds so unnatural and awkward. Especially in this context. Her heart is pounding, right? That implies suspense. So, picture your reader, rushing through the pages of your book, wanting so badly to know what happens next- and then you throw in a word like “inquire.” What’s your reader going to think? What the heck? Yeah, that’s about right.

“Inquire” sounds so formal and awkward. It’s not right when you’ve got hearts pounding and action going on. The word jolts your readers and almost pulls them out of the world of your book. It reminds them that it’s not real. You do not want to do that to your readers.

Usually, it’s really easy to tell what sounds weird and what sounds right. When you let other people read your work, they will tell you as well. But here’s a general rule of thumb that I follow when using a thesaurus: If I’ve never heard the word in my life, I don’t use it. To me, when I use a thesaurus, I look at the words and think, Oh! That’s right! I completely forgot about those words! Or I think, Yes! That’s the word I was looking for! The thesaurus is really more to jog my memory than to learn new words. But I’m not saying that you should never use new words- it’s just that if you do, make sure you look them up in the dictionary and are completely sure about the meaning. Don’t pull them straight from the thesaurus. It also helps if you look at examples that use the word in a sentence.

Even the way a word sounds can determine whether you should use it or not, even if it has the meaning you’re looking for. Did you know that the word “pulchritudinous” means “beautiful”? If a guy had called me that and I hadn’t known what it meant, I think I’d have hit him!

Edit: The title of this post is part of a quote by Mark Twain. Check out the Quotes About Writing page to read the full quote!

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  12. Mark Twain, who became the most famous man in the world during his time, knew how important words were. He’s famous for saying “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

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