Wilbers: Eloquence trumps banality in careful word selection

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 15, 2012 - 11:15 PM

We're known by our words. We stand by them, or we hide behind them. We choose them carefully, or we spit them out as if they have no more value than the plastic bags that litter our landscape.

Communicating -- conveying information clearly, revealing our most personal thoughts and aspirations, connecting with others -- depends on our choice of words.

How effectively do you use your words? Do you distinguish yourself by your precision, range and eloquence? Do you embarrass yourself by making common errors such as "flaunting the rules" when you meant flouting them? Or do you fall somewhere in between -- do you settle for the obvious and the mundane rather than find le mot juste that truly captures your thought?

Wherever you are in your command of language, if you'd like to do better, ask yourself these questions: Is my vocabulary limited or broad? Do I ever look up words I don't know? Am I adding to my vocabulary by reading and paying attention to the words of articulate speakers? Am I merely maintaining? Am I forgetting my words?

You can rank yourself according to five levels of proficiency:

Incorrect. You don't know the difference between poring over your notes and pouring over them. For a fun exercise, google "wilbers word choice errors" and take the "Word Choice Challenge."

Inappropriate. You regularly use words that aren't quite right, such as "I'm grossed out by your dishonesty."

Mundane. You settle for the standard and clichéd, such as "I'm sick and tired of your dishonesty."

Apt. You go beyond the plain, the banal and the quotidian to find something fresh or more precise, such as "I'm appalled by your dishonesty."

Eloquent. Your word choice seems perfect for your purpose, audience and occasion.

If you think word choice is irrelevant to your everyday life, think again. I was walking with a friend who picked up after his dog. When we looped back to the scene of the deposit, he said, "Watch your step."

"Why?" I asked. "Didn't you pick up the poop?"

"Well, yes," he said, "but not every morsel."

As you can imagine, I was dismayed by his voice of words.

He might have said, "I may have left some small pieces" or "There may be a bit of residue" or "Once contaminated, forever compromised." Morsel is associated with .... Sorry. Good taste prevents me from completing my thought. Had my friend taken a moment to consider his choice of words, he might have come up with something less gross, less offensive or less unsavory.

When writing, unlike speaking, you have the opportunity to revise -- to take a second look. Gross ... offensive ... unsavory.

From the coarsest language to the most elevated diction, word choice matters. Pay attention. Give it some effort. Go beyond the unthinking, the mundane, the standard, the clichéd and the boring. Have the courage and the conviction -- as well as the nimbleness and the creativity -- to be elegant, gracious, tender, irreverent, forceful, shocking, vulgar and obscene as the occasion warrants.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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