An American Editor

September 3, 2012

Choosing Words — Carefully

The advantage writing has over speech is that writing gives the author time to rethink what he or she has written. With speech, there is just that fleeting moment before the words form to think about what is about to pass the lips.

A recent gaffe by Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri, was a stark reminder of the importance of word choice. Although I will repeat his gaffe in a moment, I do not want to discuss the rightness or wrongness of what he said; rather, I want to focus on choosing words carefully and why it is important for authors to think carefully about their writing, something which too few seem to do.

Todd Akin was questioned about his views on abortion, a very hot topic in American politics, and he said: “If it is a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” so the woman cannot become pregnant (emphasis supplied). Politicians seem to be adept at providing editorial fodder.

This is a classic example of the importance of word choice and applying the test of correctness. The test is the anti clause, that is: What is an illegitimate rape? This faux pas by Akin also demonstrates why it is important to consider the appropriateness of a particular word choice. And I’m not referring to the political consequences; instead, I mean the communication-miscommunication conundrum.

Many of us have read at least one of the great Sherlock Holmes mysteries as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle was one of the great masters of language. Virtually every word was chosen with extreme care because each word could direct one to a clue or misdirect one away from a clue. Sherlock Holmes was a master detective who could see what everyone else missed, but Conan Doyle had to convey what Holmes saw in a manner that would allow the reader to solve the mystery along with Holmes or be confounded and then praise Holmes’ superior acuity when he lays out for the reader all the “obvious” clues. The point is that Conan Doyle had to consider a word and what I call its anti version (i.e., the antiword) to be sure that the word conveyed only the meaning (or obfuscation) that Conan Doyle intended.

I suspect that for Conan Doyle the word and antiword conflict resolution came quickly and easily. Poets, too, seem to have an innate grasp of this concept as they try to convey much by little. But for many of us, it requires some effort. It is clear when reading many novels that for many authors, a conscious effort is needed to resolve the conflict. It is clear because so many do not seem to ever come to grasp with the problem and even fewer seem to resolve it.

(In essence, antiword is a substitute for opposite [as in legitimate vs. illegitimate] but neither opposite nor antonym is, I think, a broad enough term or concept for this problem. I think, perhaps wrongly, that anti, which does imply opposite and antonym but also implies other characteristics, is a better descriptor. Thus my use of antiword.)

Consider whether something is legitimate or illegitimate, as in the Akin quote. In the quote, the question is less whether something is legitimate than whether it is illegitimate. It is the antiword that throws into question the accuracy of the word chosen. For legitimate to be correct, illegitimate must also be correct. Yet illegitimate in the context of the quote is incorrect.

Which brings us to the next step in the analysis: Why is the antiword impossible? Or illogical? Or implausible? Or simply incorrect? In the case of the Akin quote, it is because by definition rape is always illegitimate and therefore the antiword to illegitimate — legitimate — must be incorrect in the sense that there can be no such thing as legitimate rape. (Understand that it is the use of legitimate with rape that presents the problem. Akin could have said “uncoerced sex,” in which case, the antiword coerced is as accurate as its antiword uncoerced and renders a different meaning to the quote.)

I know the argument appears to be circular, but it really isn’t. What it boils down to is that both the word and the antiword must be capable of being correct in the exact same sentence. The Akin quote would more accurately reflect his “claimed” views had he used coerced sex rather than legitimate rape. More importantly, there would have been no miscommunication (which, I know, assumes that there was miscommunication in his original statement).

This is the dilemma that a good writer faces: How does one choose to describe something so as to lead the reader to the conclusion that the author wants? The good writer creates believability when both the word and the antiword can be correct, because the message sent, albeit stealthily, is that “I considered the antiword, but it fails to bring you to where I want you to go, even though it, too, is possible.”

The best storytellers are those who weigh the word and the antiword, even if they do so subconsciously. In fact, I suspect that the better a writer is the more this process takes place subconsciously. But it does take place, which is what matters. That it takes place is what separates the craftsperson-writer from the amateur writer.

The value of the word-antiword process is that it enhances the likelihood that the correct word is chosen and that communication, rather than miscommunication, between author and reader occurs. Anyone can sit at a computer today, pound out a 100,000-word novel, and self-publish it. Very few people can rise to the level of a craft-author, that is, one whose words convey clear, precise meanings and messages. It seems to me that we can see this difference in many forms of writing, including less formal writing such as blogs.

The greater the care that is taken with word choice, the more accurate the communication and the better the writing — a goal to which every author should strive.


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