Looking for the Best Word? Tip #09

Word cloud via tagul.com

A series of posts examining similar and dissimilar words 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 (I’d love the full version, but at £750.00 for the 20 volumes, I’m happy to let the 2 volume SOED do the job!) For word choices, 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 words, which are polar opposites:

Bellow – Roget lists the following headers: be loud, vociferate, ululate, voice, be angry, threaten. Under ‘be loud’ another 68 variations are listed, including roar, howl, blare, split the ears, and raise Cain.

Whisper – Roget lists these headers: small quantity, sound faint, imply, hint, rumour, voice, speak low, detraction. Under ‘speak low’ another 10 alternatives are shown, including speak softly, speak sotto voce, and lower one’s voice.

It’s clear from the main headings that these two antonyms can be interpreted in a number of different ways, some of which are unsuitable as opposites. This illustrates why simply dipping into a thesaurus is not enough on occasion: the true meaning of the word(s) under investigation is vital if the sentence is to make sense.

Let’s look at usage for bellow first:

‘There really is no need to bellow, George, when I’m standing right in front of you!’

This sentence provides a picture the reader will construct from the clues. It would read almost as well substituting ‘roar’ for ‘bellow’, but ‘howl’ and ‘raise Cain’ carry subtexts that might alter this picture substantially in the reader’s mind.

Now let’s look at whisper:

‘Doreen nuzzled on top of George and whispered in his ear, feeling her desired response.’

Here, the reader will form a fairly specific picture from the words used. But substituting ‘spoke softly’ or ‘lowered her voice to speak’ would reduce the intimate feel of the image.

Clearly, in these two examples, if the antonyms were to replace each other, the reader’s response to the sentences would be drastically different. In fact, although both sentences would still be grammatically acceptable, they’d produce slightly bizarre images in the mind of the reader.

Antonyms are sometimes difficult to discover and most thesauruses don’t give examples. When lost for such an opposite, I usually consult ‘The New Nuttall Dictionary of English Synonyms and Antonyms’ published 1986. I’m sure other such volumes are readily available.

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

This is the first example of antonyms in this series. I’ll present more as the series progresses. I welcome your comments, questions and observations. Please have your say in the ‘comments’ section below.