Precision in Writing — Choosing the Right Word

A teacher I admired used to drill into our heads the necessity of precision in writing, of using the right word — not the nearly right word — to convey meaning. Some of the paired words below tripped me up then and some still do, sending me searching for my Associated Press Stylebook. The stylebook is always my first choice for help since most of the magazines I write for use AP style. The AP examples make it easy to choose the precise word I need. Here are some examples from the stylebook, in no particular order.

entitled, titled

Use entitled to mean having a right to something or the right to do something. “He is entitled to the promotion.”

Use titled to refer to the name of something: The book was titled “Gone with the Wind.” This is an important one to remember when writing query letters. You wouldn’t want to tell an editor “I’m proposing an article entitled……”

farther, further

Farther refers to physical distance “He walked farther into the woods.”

Further refers to an extension of time or degree. “She will look further into the mystery.”

ensure, insure

Ensure meams to guarantee. “He took pains to ensure that the figures were correct.”

Insure refers to insurance. “He wanted to insure his house for the highest amount possible.”

faze, phase

Faze means to embarrass or disturb. “The snub did not faze her.

Phase is an aspect or a stage: “They will phase in a new educational system next year.”

flaunt, flout

Flaunt means to make an ostentatious or defiant display. “She flaunted her intelligence.”

To flout is to show contempt for. “He flouts the law.” I seldom use either of these words, but when I have to use one or the other, I’m grateful that AP can guide me to the correct one.

flounder, founder

Another pair of tricky words that I rarely use. To flounder is to move clumsily or jerkily, to flop about: “The fish floundered on land.” Flounder is also a kind of fish, so I guess you could also say: “The flounder floundered on land.”

To founder is to bog down or sink. The ship floundered in the heavy seas for hours, then foundered.

pom-pom, pompom

A pom-pom is used to describe a rapid firing automatic weapon.

A pompom is a large paper or cloth ball waved by cheerleaders. It’s also a flower — a variety of chrysanthemum.

pretense, pretext

A pretense is a false show intended to conceal personal feelings: “My profuse compliments were all pretense.”

A pretext is something put forward to conceal the truth. “He was fired for being always being late, but the reason given was only a pretext for his general incompetence.”

Look for more Choosing the Right Word examples in future posts.

Please leave a comment.

©2008 by Laverne Daley
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4 Comments on “Precision in Writing — Choosing the Right Word”

  1. Oh, I remember an advertising client arguing with me one time about ensure/insure. He told me I didn’t spell it correctly and there was no word such as “ensure.”

    I really dislike being “corrected’ incorrectly!

  2. ldaley says:

    Being “corrected” incorrectly is a bummer, especially when you know you can back up your position. Comes with the territory, I guess. Do you suppose those clients don’t have access to dictionaries?

  3. Maybe those clients are too smart for dictionaries. : )

  4. ldaley says:

    You’re onto something! I think you must be right.

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