Searching for the Right Word? Tip #3

delicate and robust
Delicate carving in robust stone (on the Arc de Triomphe)

Do you want to inspire readers with joy, arouse fear, romance with love, or does your story need the reader to sink into despair along with your protagonist? This set of posts looks at ways of influencing mood by selecting the ‘right’ words for the job.

  1. Delicate

Delicate is an adjective with many subtly different meanings. The SOED gives it 12 separate definitions, which I’ll précis: Delightful; characterised by sensuous delight; self-indulgent, indolent; fastidious; not robust; of weakly constitution; fine in texture, finish etc.; having finely developed perception; finely skilful; sensitive to propriety, modesty; subtle; requiring careful handling.

And Roget’s gives innumerable synonyms listed under the following headings: insubstantial, flimsy, brittle, textural, soft-hued, accurate, difficult, pleasurable.

It’s a concept we probably all think we understand. How do we actually use it, this idea of something fine, flimsy and insubstantial?


“Gordon’s delicate constitution made him unsuitable for heavy work in the great outdoors, but he was more fitted for the finer work of hand decorating the bone china made by his employer.”

This is a statement of fact, which conveys the actual situation Gordon finds himself in. It says nothing about his feelings on the matter, tells us nothing about whether he accepts his lot in life.

Let’s try expressing the information in a more emotionally charged way:

“Gordon pulled the zip of his Parka as high as it would go and hunched his shoulders against the cold. Workers on the building site he passed on the way to the studio laboured in shirtsleeves and he cast envious glances at skin exposed to the autumnal chill. At his workstation, he quickly settled to the day’s tasks, turning on the radio to absorb serene strains of symphonic orchestral music. His first piece was a translucent bowl on which his deft brushwork described nature in finest detail. Two hours later, he stretched aching muscles and turned the piece on the revolving platform, checking the results of his efforts. An hour passed in total absorption as he corrected minor errors in the initial work and was finally convinced the piece could be passed to his colleague for completion. He smiled, accepting his fine skills were more suited to such employment than to hard labour outdoors.”

This example tells us a lot more about Gordon and his attitude to his health and his work. Some of it is ‘told’ and some is ‘shown’, but the overall effect is one of connecting emotionally with the character rather than merely stating the facts. It’s up to the writer to decide which is the most appropriate style for the story he/she is telling, of course.

The opposite of ‘delicate’ is ‘robust’.


“Georgina shrugged off her overalls to escape the cloying heat of the workshop. Around her, the men were stripped to the waist as they worked their hammers on hot metal. Tempted as she was to experience their freedom, she recognised convention would unjustly frown on such exposure. At least they now accepted her not as the delicate flower they’d labelled her in the early days. Their nickname for her now was Robust Rosy, and she revelled in her reputation for toughness in this man’s world where she laboured. Her husband, Gordon, would be proud of her.”

When possible, I’ll present antonyms to offer contrasts in mood and tone, but the subtleties of the English language mean these don’t always exist. If nothing else, I hope the series will increase used vocabulary and enhance our writing with words that more precisely reflect what we’re trying to convey to our readers.

The examples are just that: examples. There are many thesauruses around; I prefer the original Roget I started using in the 1980s, and it still resides just behind me on my reference shelf. I have other books of word choices, which I consult at those times when the apposite word evades me. But I try to acquire that ‘right’ word from the scarce grey matter that takes up some of the void within my skull: it’s good mental exercise.

And, please, keep in mind that whilst any thesaurus will provide you with alternatives for the idea of the word you seek, not all those suggestions are true synonyms, so always consider context.

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