For a short introduction to this series, please click this link.
In these posts, I’m looking at some similar, and dissimilar, words in an effort to suggest ways writers might make their work more varied, accessible, interesting, accurate or effective.
A good thesaurus provides alternatives for the idea of a word, but not all those suggestions are true synonyms. Context is vital. Placing alternative words in the same sentence to see whether they actually make sense is one way of determining whether they’re suitable. However, it’s not a foolproof method, so a good dictionary is vital.
I prefer the 1987 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus. It sits in easy reach. However, I try to dig the best word from my overburdened memory first: it’s good mental exercise. Other books of word choices, which I sometimes consult when the apposite word evades me, reside on my reference shelf, behind me.
So, to the examples:
Babble – Roget’s index lists the following headers: flow, sound faint, reason badly, be foolish, be insane, empty talk, mean nothing, language, chatter. All these words are associated with the idea of ‘babble’, but not necessarily direct synonyms. Under ‘flow’ alone a further 94 alternatives are suggested, so there are many variations available. How to decide which to choose?
For this word there are two fairly broad ideas: one deals with sound, the other with sense.
We’ll look at ‘sound’ first.
‘The natural silence of the woodland was woven with soft, occasional trills of birdsong, rustling canopy leaves caught by the soughing breeze and the constant varied babble of the nearby brook.’
The babbling brook, so beloved of poets, treads well into cliché territory and is probably best avoided.
Let’s see if we can improve on the sentence, without altering its structure too much.
‘In the natural silence of the woodland, occasional soft trills of birdsong wove through the rustling of canopy leaves teased by the soughing breeze and the constant but varied burble of the nearby brook.’ We could use ‘gurgle’, ‘bubble’, ‘murmur’, ‘plash’ or ‘ripple’ with equal effect here.
Now let’s look at sense.
‘Prime Minister’s Question Time in the Commons is frequently no more than babble, incomprehensible raised voices, interruptions and snide asides.’
Again, babble here is something of a cliché.
Let’s try to improve the statement.
‘Prime Minister’s Question Time in the Commons is frequently no more than rant, blather, twaddle, bilge, bull, interruptions and snide asides.’
Here, the idea of senselessness nicely complements the writer’s obvious displeasure at the infantile antics of the politicians. The long list of words describing the foolish prattle that passes for discussion emphasises both the irritation of the author and the foolishness of the participants.
Let me know what you think; provide you own examples as a way of putting the suggestion into practice. I welcome comments, questions and observations. Please have your say using the ‘comments’ below.