Looking for the Best Word? Tip #05

Word cloud via tagul.com


For a short introduction to this series, please click this link.

These posts look at similar, and dissimilar, words in an effort to suggest ways writers might make their work more varied, accessible, interesting, accurate and effective.

A good thesaurus provides alternatives for the idea of a word, but not all 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 foolproof, 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. My dictionary of choice is the SOED.

So, to this week’s word:

Provoke – Roget lists the following headers: cause, incite, make quarrels, torment, be insolent. All are associated with the idea of ‘provocation’, but some will work poorly as direct synonyms. Under ‘incite’ a further 67 alternatives are given; single words, and phrases, including both ‘stimulate’ and ‘lash’. How to decide which to choose?

Two fairly distinct ideas can be found here; one is concerned with causing something and the other with cheek or impudence. Because of the subtlety of English, there are, of course, many other shades of meaning to be explored.

Let’s look at the idea of insolence first.

‘Mrs Majors ran out of patience over Roger’s insolence and dragged him to the Headmaster’s office for a severe lecture on manners and respect.’

In this sentence, several of the alternatives, including ‘provocation’, ‘cheek’, ‘impudence’, and ‘sauce’ could be used as alternatives. However, some others; ‘arrogance’, ‘presumption’, ‘browbeating’ and ‘hectoring’, may not be suitable, depending on the sense intended by the writer. That’s the beauty of English; it provides such nuance. But it’s important always to consider context.

So, lets’ now look at the idea of causing something.

This may be a reaction or an action.

‘Then, coincidentally, the light goes out, provoking a performance worthy of the heroine in those supposedly scary black and white B movies from the forties.’

Amongst the suitable alternatives here are, ‘causing’, ‘producing’, ‘generating’, and ‘creating’. I used ‘provoking’ because it works better in the sentence, has a sexual connotation appropriate to the story, and is a word associated with heroines of B movies. Amongst suggested alternatives for this sense are: ‘auspicate’, ‘institute’, ‘inaugurate’, and ‘initiate’, all of which might tempt writers with their sense of importance as words. However, they fail to produce the correct mood. Again, context is all.

This last example is taken from ‘But, Baby, it’s Cold Outside’, a humorous story set on the New Year’s Eve. You can read it for free by clicking on this link.

Share your examples as a way of putting the suggestion into practice. I welcome comments, questions and observations. Please have your say using the ‘comments’ section below.

This post was scheduled. I’m on a digital break and won’t be responding to comments until 8th October. But please don’t let that stop you!