Words: Tricky, Slippery, and Precise: Choose yours wisely

by Quinn McDonald (SAQA Journal)

Words shape our thoughts into reality, but words are tricky. Word choice and word order are the main culprits that can slide us quite unexpectedly into awkward moments.

One of those moments came when I was a volunteer at an art supply convention. Teaching outside your studio is always tricky work. Success depends on carefully planned supplies and checklists. On the first day of the convention, five experimenters happily worked on an art project at my table.

My job was straightforward: run the demo twice a day plus do one Oh, wow! project each day. Oh, wow! projects get their name from the delighted sighs of the audience as they watch art transformed into practical objects. In this case, I was surface decorating a piece of paper and then making it into a photo mat.

As I happily worked with the people exploring creativity at my table, I was surprised to see Jean, the marketing manager of the store I was representing, rush over.

“The 11 a.m. Oh, wow! project didn’t show up,” Jean said. “Could you do yours now?” I glanced at my experimenters. I didn’t want to abandon them. Jean noticed my concern. Smiling, she said, “I’ll cover your table for you.” She knew the project. Her clever solution to finish the project was perfect. “Thanks,” I said, and headed to the high counter.

The microphone was clipped to my lapel, my papers were in order under the counter. Ready! I glanced back at the table to see Jean throw a bed sheet over my project leftovers and the participants leaving. This was not what I thought was going to happen. Then I replayed what she had said: “I’ll cover your table for you.” She had meant it literally—she would protect my art supplies from theft by covering them. I had interpreted it as, “I’ll do your job.”

Both of us were right. The phrase can be understood either way. I didn’t ask, and she didn’t explain because we each knew what the other meant. Except, lacking mind-reading abilities, we could not know.

The story is a perfect example of the problem with the English language: syntax is squishy and easily molded. It has few rules and hundreds of exceptions. Your grammar checker is wrong quite often, too.

Writing Quote

No matter what you write, from an email to an artist’s statement, words shape what others think of you. It’s not what you say as much as what others hear. How can you be clear?

  • Don’t go with your first draft. It’s never finely tuned.
  • Read your writing out loud; it helps you hear it as your audience does.
  • Have someone else read your writing and ask them, “What is the main idea you get?”
  • You may be surprised at what others hear. Rewriting saves your communication.

Words that are spelled the same are pronounced differently in context. There is a 60-second minute, but a tiny difference is called minute. Read is both present tense and past tense, but pronounced differently. You can object if you don’t like something, but if that “thing” is an object, you’ll hear that verbs and nouns aren’t always pronounced the same.

You may be a beacon of clarity, but only to yourself. To make your writing precise, word choice is critical. It’s not just fabric, it’s cotton, silk, wool, maybe a blend? Are you cutting or tearing the fabric? Is it an edge or a selvage? Sure, you are using thread, but what kind or brand and why did you choose it?

Some of your readers or students may be experienced, but some may be beginners. They both need help, but in different ways.

The world of color also demands precision. It may be light green for you, but to others it could be celadon, apple green, sage, mint, or sea-glass green. When the sentence says, “The mayor talked about the high cost of living with several women,” do we understand that living with several women is expensive, or that the audience was a group of women? Word order is important.

The news reader said, “A body was found in the Sonoran Desert yesterday, half-eaten by Game and Fish employees.” The employees did not dispatch anyone, but it sounded like they did. Word order also created that problem.

The sign read, ”Hunters please use caution when hunting pedestrians using walk trails.” A period after “hunting” would help pedestrians feels safer.

It’s not a good idea to say, “Well, you know what I meant,” because your audience knows only what they think you meant. They will act on their belief. Make it the same as yours by choosing your words carefully.

Quinn McDonald is a writer who helps people grow into the stories they tell about themselves. Learn more about her at quinncreative.com.