Looking for the Best Word? Tip #07

Word cloud via tagul.com


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

These posts examine similar, and sometimes 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 checking 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 of my desk. However, I try to prise the best word from my overloaded memory first: it’s good mental exercise. Other books of word choices, which I occasionally consult when the pertinent word evades me, reside on my reference shelf, behind me.

So, to this week’s word:

Require – Roget lists the following headers: be incomplete, fall short, necessitate, require, not suffice, demand, request, desire, impose a duty. All are associated with the idea of ‘requirement’, but some are poor as direct synonyms. Under ‘necessitate’ lurk another 21 alternatives; both as single words and as phrases, including ‘leave no choice’ and ‘doom’. How to decide which to use?

Require can be seen to embody some basic ideas, including those of incompletion, and demand.

Let’s look at usage for the idea of lack of completion first:

‘You haven’t reached the required level, so I’m not paying the full amount.’

In this statement, it’s possible to replace ‘required’ with ‘necessary’. And the sense of the sentence can be maintained by replacing ‘You haven’t reached the required level’ with ‘Your level of attainment is incomplete’, ‘You’re attainment falls short of…’ etc. There are many other suggested synonyms, some of which would require the sentence to be restructured if it’s to give the same meaning. But other apparent synonyms for the idea of ‘requiring’ are listed as ‘craving’, begging a favour’, and ‘making bold to ask’; clearly these are unsuitable, and it’s in these cases that the dictionary forms an essential supplementary tool to the thesaurus, since context is a vital element of understanding.

The other sense of ‘require’ is that to do with demand:

‘For all that it’s black as the proverbial out there, I’m required to venture forth if I’m to retain credibility in the current lover’s eyes.’

Here, the sentence explains that the narrator faces an ultimatum of sorts. Softer alternatives to ‘required’ could be; ‘expected’, requested’, ‘invited’, whereas synonyms with equal strength to that used could be; ‘commanded’, ‘ordered’, ‘instructed’. I settled on ‘required’ here as it gives the appropriate mood of demand, something ‘expected and directed’, and the term will be understood by most readers to embrace the slight irony contained within the sentence. Read the passage within the context of the story, here, and you’ll see what I mean.

Let me know how you’d have worded this. I welcome your comments, questions and observations. Please have your say using the ‘comments’ section below.

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