Watch Words

Although working at a newspaper is not my ideal writing job, it’s good work, and over the years it has contributed to my writing career in some unexpected ways. One thing it’s done is it’s shown me how important — and sometimes tricky — it is to choose the right word in a given circumstance.

I got to thinking about this after Dick Cheney appeared on the Today show yesterday to pimp his new book, “In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir.” Jamie Gangel asked Cheney about a passage in the book in which Cheney claims Condi Rice “tearfully” admitted to him she’d been wrong in urging then-President Bush to apologize for inaccurate claims regarding Iraq’s attempts to boost its nuclear weapons capacity. Cheney denied that this meant Rice had been crying, only that she was “tearful.” He insisted that he chose that word very deliberately.

Gangel rightfully pointed out that “tearful” was a loaded word, which is a gentle way of telling Cheney that it’s very hard to use “tearful” in a way that does not immediately make the reader think the subject of said adjective was crying.

Without getting into Cheney’s head, its impossible to say whether this was indeed a deliberate choice by a skilled writer — an effort to portray a situation accurately but, through the slipperiness of language, avoid making an explicit accusation that Rice was crying — or a semi-skilled writer choosing a word that does not quite match what he really meant to say. I’m inclined to go with the latter; even well-schooled writers are sometimes unaware of how certain words are likely to be interpreted by the reader. Granted,  a word like “tearful” does not grant the writer or reader a lot of leeway in interpretation…

And yet, I’ve personally seen how readers, especially (to be frank about it) less literate readers can read into a word in unexpected ways — or, to be fair, when I use a word that has a less well-known definition.

The incident that really made me aware of how word choices affect the meaning of a sentence occurred a few years back, when I wrote in an otherwise standard police log write-up that an officer “scored” his third arrest in a week. In my head, “scored” meant “achieved” or “attained” (as per definition 4B). The reader? She chewed me out for suggesting that police were in some sort of competition to see who could rack up the most arrests; she interpreted “score” in the more commonplace sense of scoring a point in a game.

I suspect this woman was in fact related to the suspect and was venting her embarrassment at me, since I was a convenient target, but it nevertheless opened my eyes in a big way to the power a single word can have in coloring a sentence. That’s a great tool, because it allows a storyteller to convey ideas in less direct and more colorful, yet equally effective ways. If I were, say, writing a police drama and wanted to suggest that two cops had an ongoing rivalry, I could write “Officer Smith scored three arrests in one day, two more than Officer Jones” to subtly enhance that idea.

Careful word selection is something that gets lost in the hurlyburly of writing a first draft, at least for me, but it’s something to bear in mind during the re-writes. Anything that enhances the story is worth the extra effort.

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