Thursday, March 4, 2010

Right word, right time, big difference

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

I was perusing the latest celebrity headlines, making sure I got my fix of the lives of the rich and famous, when I came upon this headline:

"Bruce Willis Not Fussed About Starting a Family."

The gist of the story - which, okay, yes, I read - was that the newly married movie star wasn't terribly concerned over whether he had more kids or not. Fine. Cool. Way to be laid back, Bruce.

But as for that weird headline, I had to read it twice. Fussed? Seriously? I knew what the headline writer meant, but surely that wasn't the word he was looking for. But it offered another perfect example of how just one wrong word can ruin otherwise fine prose.

Words, as we all know, can be confusing. Not to oversimplify here, but there are an awful lot of words out there that sound incredibly alike. And writers have to think very carefully when they're painting their visuals, lest they lead their readers astray.

For instance:
Your main character. Is she trembling or tremulous?
That detective? Is he foundering or floundering?
And the wealthy aunt: complacent or complaisant?

All things to consider. That Mark Twain quote, above? Probably overused, yes, but it's so good, I just couldn't resist. Because he makes his point so succinctly and wonderfully. Lightning crackles and sparkles in the sky - it's memorable, unforgettable, sometimes even talked about for weeks. A lightning bug? Well, that's a different story; just a charming little thing you point at and move on.

I edited a piece of copy once where the reporter was writing about a group of community leaders checking out a landfill for the first time. The day was dark, cold and rainy, and if you've ever visited a landfill, you know it's not exactly a visit to Candyland. But one of her sentences read: "They traipsed through the mud." I read it twice. Traipsed? I brought it back to her. It was an error, plain and simple. She meant to write: "They trudged through the mud."

Lightning. Lightning bug.

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