An American Editor

March 12, 2010

On Words: Is the Correct Word Important?

One facet of a professional editor’s work is to help an author choose the correct word to convey the author’s meaning. I do not mean choosing between homonyms (e.g., seams vs. seems), but rather helping the author communicate with increased precision.

This is less problematic in fiction than in nonfiction, although it does have ramifications in fiction, too. I doubt that it matters much whether a character in a novel believes, thinks, or feels something; that is, use of any of the words is sufficient to convey the meaning intended. But in nonfiction, shades do matter and precision is more important.

Consider feel. Authors often use feel as if it were synonymous with think or believe. It is not unusual to see a construction such as: “The authors feel that a difference of 0.2 standard deviations is insignificant.” But the authors do not really feel this, they believe or think it. Yet many people accept feel as proper usage in this construction. Does it matter? Yes!

Feel is a less intense expression of think and believe, a weak substitute for the correct expression. Consequently, using feel as a substitute for think or believe is to weaken the argument. Feel‘s semantic lineages are touch and sensation; its Old English root is felan. In contrast, believe‘s root is the late Old English belyfan and think‘s root is the Old English thencan. Three different roots to express three different meanings.

Choosing the right word ensures the correct tone and emphasis; it adds credibility because the choice strengthens the argument being made. Conversely, choosing the wrong word or a lesser word to convey an idea weakens the argument. Consider the effect of using feel, believe, and think in propounding a theorem.

The reader who encounters “I feel this theorem is correct” cannot precisely determine how correct the theorem is in the author’s view. Feel is so weak that it is a straddling word — that is, a word that straddles the gap between is and is not, may and may not, fact and fiction, and the like — but without clarity as to whether it leans more to the is and less to the is not or vice versa. Feel is equidistant, giving the author the most wiggle room.

Believe is less weak in the construction “I believe this theorem is correct.” Yet, it too is a straddling word that provides wiggle room. What the author is really saying is that the theorem may or may not be correct but on the continuum between may and may not, the author is more on the may than the may not side.

To say, however, “I think the theorem is correct” is to firmly come down on the is, may, fact side of the continuum. The author is telling the reader that the author has a high degree of certainty of the correctness of the position — not an absolute certainty, but a high degree.

Is this distinction important? Yes, albeit less important in fiction and greatly more important in nonfiction writing. Think of a medical diagnosis: Would you prefer to have a less certain or more certain diagnosis? Would you prefer the doctor to be less certain or more certain about the efficacy of a treatment protocol?

Similarly, there is increasing misuse of that and which. That is used in a restrictive clause, whereas which reflects a nonrestrictive clause. And each reflects a different meaning and requires a different punctuation. The nonrestrictive clause is separated from the rest of the sentence by a preceding comma. The which clause, as a nonrestrictive clause, provides supplemental information, information that the sentence could omit without harm based on the context presented by the material that precedes and follows the sentence.

Bryan Garner, in his Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed., 2009, p. 806) provides the following example sentences:

  • “All the cars that were purchased before 2008 need to have their airbags replaced.”
  • “All the cars, which were purchased before 2008, need to have their airbags replaced.”

A careful read of the sentences indicates the distinction. Yet, making the choice between that and which, like making the choice between feel, believe, and think, can be the difference in communication or miscommunication.

Between used with numbers is another good example of the effect of word choice. When we write between 5 and 10, do we mean 6, 7, 8, and 9 or 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10? Correctly it is the former, but many authors intend the latter. If the latter is meant, it is more precise to write from 5 to 10 as that includes the beginning and ending numbers. Is the distinction important? Think about a book describing space travel and the number of years it would take to get from point A to point B. If I write between 5 and 10, the reader can deduce that it will take 6, 7, 8, or 9 years, whereas if I write from 5 to 10, the reader can deduce it will take as few as 5 years or as many as 10 years or some number of years between 5 and 10. The latter conveys the broader range, the former conveys the narrower range.

A professional editor helps the author make these correct word choices. Where the correct choice matters, it can be the difference between clear communication and miscommunication.

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