Writing with Precision: More Words that Trip Us Up

“A writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.” Vladimir Nabokov

Have you seen the Avis television commercials written from the point of view of a car whose owner is off to Florida, enjoying herself while driving around in a new Avis rental car? The left-behind vehicle bemoans having to sit “staring at a cement wall” until the owner returns.

There’s a problem with the commercial, precisely this: there can be no such thing as a cement wall. The vehicle is facing a concrete wall. Cement is a soft powdered substance which is mixed with water, sand and gravel to make concrete, the finished product used for walls, sidewalks and the like. Cement is much too soft to become a wall. Evidently the Avis copywriter didn’t take the time to learn the difference in the two words.

It’s easy for words like cement and concrete to trip us up. That’s why I keep a dictionary and a style book like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style close to the computer to help in choosing the exact word needed for a sentence.

Other right- and nearly-right words can also trip us up. Here are a few more that I’ve come across in recent weeks:

Disburse and Disperse

Disburse means to give out (We will disburse Christmas bonuses early this year).
Disperse means to scatter (The mob chose to disperse when the police car came into view).

Disassemble and Dissemble

To Disassemble means to take apart (The mechanic disassembled the engine to find out why it failed).
To Dissemble means to tell lies (The Senator was known to dissemble in his speeches).

Past and Passed

Past refers to events that have taken place previously (His past came back to haunt him in his new job).
Passed is the past tense of the word pass (While waiting to see the doctor, he passed the time by working sudoku puzzles).

Economic and Economical

Economic means having to do with the economy (The housing crisis is having a big impact on our economy).
Economical means being financially prudent, as being careful in spending money or time (She found it most economical to shop in grocery stores that doubled coupons).

Sunrise and Dawn

The words are not equivalent in meaning. Sunrise is the daily appearance of the sun above the eastern horizon (While we were on vacation, we watched the sunrise every morning).
Dawn is the period of daylight in the morning that happens before the sun emerges above the horizon (They waited for dawn so they could see well enough to launch the boats).

Hoard and Horde

Hoard means to store or accumulate things (During World War !!, some people tried to hoard sugar).
Horde means a large group of people (A horde of fans turned out for the concert).

I’ll finish with some words of advice, not from me but from the poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who knew the value of writing with precision:

“Put the argument into a concrete shape, into an image, some hard phrase, round and solid as a ball, which they can see and handle and carry home with them, and the cause is half won.”

© 2008 by Laverne Daley

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One Comment on “Writing with Precision: More Words that Trip Us Up”

  1. Jackie Sandberg says:

    Here are a couple that I have trouble with: borrow, loan and lend.
    Can I borrow a dollar? Can I loan a dollar? or Can I lend a dollar?

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