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.

5 Comments »

  1. Oh, so much. I believe I’ll start out with what I think a feeling feels like.

    You make a good point about the general weakness of “feel,” when the speaker or writer probably means “think” or “believe.” Traditionally, “believe” is used to assert a claim that the speaker cannot prove but has enough confidence in it to rely on the claim. “Think” is most properly used to assert a reasoned conclusion. Interestingly, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has published three books for general, popular reading (Decartes’ Error, The Feeling of What Happens, and Looking for Spinoza, among his other professional publications) in which he argues that feelings and emotions are not antithetical to cold reasoning, but are central and crucial to being able to reason. He claims, quite convincingly, that without the neural input of feelings, cognitive thinking cannot occur. And in a related area, Israel Rosenfield argues (in The Invention of Memory) that we cannot create a memory of an occurrence without an associated affect, that is, we cannot remember without a feeling attached to the memory.

    Apropos of “that” and “which”: American writers and editors are far more careful to use “that” for the restrictive clause and “which” for the nonrestrictive clause; British writers are less vigilant on which term to use for the restrictive clause. But neither British nor American writers and editors use “that” in a non-restrictive locution.

    As for the numbers, usually “the numbers between 5 and 10” could mean only 6-9; if the writer meant all the numbers starting with 5 and ending with 10, he or she would write “from 5 to 10, inclusive” to signify that both 5 and 10 were being counted. Using “between” creates a bit of ambiguity, but then adding “inclusive” clears that up.

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    Comment by Michael Brady — March 12, 2010 @ 9:45 am | Reply

  2. As the author of nineteen books of fiction and nonfiction, I respectfully disagree with this statement: “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.”

    Precision is important in every genre, and the shades of meaning count. What is being missed here is the author’s voice and style. I have had copyeditors and editors working on books of mine in different genres try to make changes that didn’t work for me precisely because they substituted someone else’s diction for my own. I read my work aloud to know it better and my word choices are deliberate and important, so if one of my characters believed something as opposed to felt it, it wouldn’t be a random choice.

    BTW, for those who haven’t been the victim of an over-zealous copyeditor, you might enjoy my essay from Bibliobuffet:

    http://www.bibliobuffet.com/bibliopinions-columns-194/archive-index-bibliopinions/853-stet-stet-stet-082408

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    Comment by Lev Raphael — March 12, 2010 @ 12:34 pm | Reply

    • Very interesting article, Lev. I think all editors should take a few minutes and read it.

      I agree about the need to preserve author voice and style, particularly in fiction. As to the editor who inspired your article, I think he/she was clearly overzealous, especially if they were hired as a copyeditor rather than as a developmental editor. The distinction is important and helps establish the parameters of the editor’s work. I discussed the distinction in Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.

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      Comment by americaneditor — March 12, 2010 @ 1:04 pm | Reply

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    Pingback by I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors « An American Editor — June 28, 2010 @ 8:35 am | Reply

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