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by The Editor Company   


There is, perhaps, no other subject which so earnestly recommends itself to the old as well as to the young writer, as the subtle art of choosing the right word for the right place. It is the foundation principle of easy writing and close delineation. Analysis of the work of successful writers shows that one of the elements of that success has been the realization of this fact. The story is told of a great writer who was absent from his home all day long. When he returned, his good wife inquired where he had been. "In search of a word," he responded; "it was an all day's hunt, but I found it."

The great importance of study, care, patience and precision in the selection of words can scarcely be overestimated. They are the units of the writer's stock-in-trade, and only by becoming intimately acquainted with this working capital can he hope to fit the expression to the idea. At best our mother tongue is sadly lacking in flexibility, and unless a thorough understanding of word-value is exercised, the expression will be but a caricature upon human thought. It is the perception of these delicate shades of difference in the meaning of words which often changes the verdict from unavailable to available.

This perception may be partly intuitive but in any case it must be cultivated as well. We have seen children in school who when reading would insert a small word for a large one, without a break in the smoothness of the thought, and this, too, without having previously seen the large word in question. The idea was intuitively gathered from the context. Next to that pupil might be another to whom that word would be a mere meaningless jumble of letters. In either case a mastery of diction may be acquired by perseverance, but the first will develop into an easier writer than the second, because of natural resourcefulness.

In preparing the first draft of an article, it would not be practical to weigh every word as it is written, without the result being forced and pedantic. The time for such study is every day and all the time; then unconsciously the principles gained will be applied. This prevision of the work will make the revision less arduous, and the result less of a hit-or-miss affair.

In order to acquire purity of diction we must have a recognized standard, and, as there can be no absolute standard in a living, growing language, we have to be guided by the usage of the best writers and speakers. Dr. Campbell's Law of Use tells us that to be legitimate, "A word must be reputable, or that of educated people, as opposed to that of the ignorant or vulgar. It must be national, as opposed to what is either local or technical. It must be present, as opposed to what is obsolete."

We have to remember that the average reader is a person of average intelligence and education; that a barbarism is an offence against good taste; a provincialism or technicality, an obstacle to clearness; and an expression too old or too newly coined, open to criticism. Pope in his Essay on Criticism aptly says:

"In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold; Alike fantastic, if too new or old; Be not the first by whom the new are tried, Nor yet the last to lay aside."

Having decided what words may legitimately constitute our vocabulary, we come to the proper assignment of those words to their correct uses in a sentence. One example will suffice to show that while a word may be perfectly legitimate in itself, yet its improper use will constitute a serious impropriety. "Every one in the audience held his breath, while the fearless aeronaut sailed upward and was lost among the clouds." Clearly these people came to see and not to hear, in which case they should be designated as spectators and not as an audience.

Precision in diction brings us to the study of synonyms. We must consider what words suggest as well as what they really express. The skilful use of synonymous terms means true word-pictures and a pleasing variety in their presentation. The actual arrangement must be such as to give clearness to the thought and due prominence to words worthy of emphasis.

An unabridged dictionary for etymology and significance, a good rhetoric for general principles, and a standard work on synonyms for distinctions, are all the books needed for a beginning at least, and if diligently studied are worth a library full of books seldom referred to or merely skimmed through.

This subject is the work of a life-time rather than of a day or week, but without a fair amount of working knowledge, no writer can hope for the minute exactness which makes a carefully prepared manuscript a mosaic, of which not one misfit word mars the symmetry.