Looking for the Best Word? Tip #08

Word cloud created via tagul.com

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.

My dictionary of choice is the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, but I’m sure you have your own favourite. And I prefer the 1987 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus. It sits within easy reach. However, I try to extract 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 words, which are often confused:

Uninterested – Roget lists the following headers: incurious, inattentive, choiceless, apathetic, indifferent. All are associated with the idea of ‘uninterested’, but some may not work as direct synonyms. Under ‘incurious’ another 20 alternatives are listed, including ‘uninquisitive’ and ‘bored’.

Disinterested – Roget lists these headers: ‘benevolent’, ‘philanthropic’, ‘just’, ‘disinterested’. Under ‘disinterested’ there are another 65 suggestions, including ‘impartial’, and ‘without bias’.

I confess that the misuse of these two words is a bit of a bugbear with me. I fear the Oxford Dictionary editors may allow these two words to become interchangeable due to common usage (misuse), in the same unfortunate way they allowed ‘literal’ to include ‘virtual’ among its meanings. We’re writers and the accuracy and variety of our language must surely be important to us, so we can all do our bit to ensure that organic change happens only where it must. Agreed?

Let’s look at usage for uninterested first:

‘Jimmy was uninterested in history lessons, as the teacher’s voice and delivery bored him. As a result, he failed his exam in this subject and missed many opportunities he might otherwise have enjoyed.’

The sense here is that the lessons were boring, the student was unengaged and inattentive because of the way the subject was presented.

Now let’s look at disinterested:

‘Doreen’s experience of painting made her the ideal judge for the annual village art contest. She knew she must remain disinterested in the artist of each piece and select the best result, even though her favourite niece had entered a picture.’

Here, the sense is that of justice and fairness. As a judge, it’s imperative that impartiality is foremost and that the quality of the submission overcomes any bias that may be felt toward a particular entrant.

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

This is the first example of commonly confused words in this series. I’ll present a few more as the series progresses. If you’re well aware of the correct usage, my apologies for the reminder. If you were unaware, I hope the explanation makes it easier to remember which is which. I welcome your comments, questions and observations. Please have your say in the ‘comments’ section below.