Saturday, June 9, 2012

Writing is a craft that requires precision in our word choices

Constructing grammatically and structurally correct sentences is a must in writing, but we all know that this isn’t enough to command and retain the attention of the reader. We need to come up with clear, readable, and compelling sentences for our expositions—a craft that requires precision in our choice of words as carriers of the thoughts and ideas that we want to share. English being a particularly rich language, with thousands upon thousands of words that mean more or less the same thing, we must develop the knack for choosing the word that best captures the sense that we want to convey. Obviously, this needs more than just a passing acquaintance with the definitions of words and their synonyms. Indeed, to be effective writers, we must make a continuing and purposive effort to widen our English vocabulary. For the wider and richer our vocabulary, the better we will be able to differentiate between the various meanings, senses, and nuances of words and their synonyms, and the better, livelier, and more interesting our writing will be.

It was to bring home this point that I wrote the essay below, “Using synonyms to enliven prose,” for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in January of 2004. I am now posting it in the Forum as part of a series of back-to-basics lessons in writing that I intend to present in this section in the next several weeks. (June 10, 2012)  

Using synonyms to enliven prose 

The French novelist Gustave Flaubert believed that only one word could give justice to a particular thing—“le mot juste”—and he obsessively searched for it before committing himself on paper. He may well have been right. After all, short of deliberately destroying the thing itself, there really isn’t much we can do to change its fundamental nature. Thus, in the English language, an “apple” will remain an “apple” till it’s eaten and digested, and “Eve” will remain “Eve” even after she has eaten that apple and is cast away from Paradise. Fortunately for us, however, there’s really no semantic law forbidding us to call an “apple” or “Eve” by some other word the next time it figures in our thoughts or on our tongues.

How dreary language, communication, and literature would be, in fact, if Flaubert’s prescription for words—like what is generally believed as the preferred French prescription for kissing—were to be followed to the letter! Then we would have to contend every time with the tedium of going through passages like this:

The apple is the popular edible fruit of the apple tree. The apple has the scientific name Malus sylvestris and belongs to the family Rosaceae. The apple is widely cultivated in temperate climates. The apple has more than 7,000 varieties but only 40 are commercially important, and the most popular apple variety in the U.S. is called Delicious. Apples are of three main types: cooking apples, dessert apples, and apples for making cider.

Using synonyms or similar words in place of a particular key word is actually one of the most powerful devices for giving zest and substance to language. Along with the other reference word techniques that we have already learned, they help ensure that our listeners or readers won’t tune us out because of boredom. Synonyms, while not exactly le mot juste, allow us to clarify meaning by focusing on the word’s specific attributes, thus throwing new light on the same idea. They make laborious, complicated explanations unnecessary; as in painting, well-chosen single words or short phrases are quick brush strokes that illumine ideas or clarify meaning and intent. As Peter Mark Roget, author of Roget’s Thesaurus, remarked in his introduction to the revolutionary book in 1852: “Some felicitous expression thus introduced will frequently open the mind of the reader to a whole vista of collateral ideas.”

Indeed, see what happens to the dreary apple passage above when we take Roget’s prescription to heart:

The apple, the mythical fruit often associated with the beginnings of the world and mankind, is the popular fruit of the tree of the same name. The fleshy, edible pome—usually of red, yellow, or green color—has the scientific name Malus sylvestris and belongs to the family Rosaceae. As a cousin of the garden rose, it has the same usually prickly shrub with feather-shaped leaves and five-petaled flowers. It is widely cultivated as a fruit crop in temperate climates. More than 7,000 varieties of the species are known but only 40 are commercially important, and its most popular variety in the U.S. is called Delicious. The fruit is of three main types: the cooking apple, the dessert apple, and the type for making cider.

This revised passage uses a total of eight apple synonyms and similar words: “popular fruit,” “tree of the same name,” “pome,” “a cousin of the garden rose,” “a fruit crop,” “species,” “variety,” and “the type”—each one capturing a new shade of meaning, aspect, connotation, or denotation of the apple and throwing the idea of the word “apple” in bolder relief.

We must beware, however, that synonyms can only establish contexts, not definitions; they may help illuminate discourse but not offer an analysis of things. For instance, in the revised apple passage, the synonyms used will be useful only to the extent that each of them is already understood by the listeners or readers. All of the apple-related words used—except “pome”—work very well as synonyms in the passage because they are of common knowledge; depending on the target audience, however, “pome” may need some clarifying amplification. (A pome, for those confounded by the word, is “a fleshy fruit with an outer thickened fleshy layer and a central core with usually five seeds enclosed in a capsule.”) The speaker or writer must ultimately decide if such amplification is needed.

When using synonyms, we also must make sure that their antecedent words—whether nouns, pronouns, or verbs—are clear all throughout. There is always the danger of overdoing the word replacements, particularly when the conceptual link between the original sword and the synonym is not strong enough. In that case, repeating the original word or using the obvious pronoun for it—“he,” “she,” “it,” “they,” or “them”—may be more advisable. Go over the revised apple passage again and see how the pronoun “it” for apple was used twice to provide such a link and continuity.
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, January 12, 2004 issue © 2004 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.