Looking for the Best Word? Tip #11

Word cloud via tagul.com

Examining similar and dissimilar words for ways writers might make their work more varied, accessible, interesting, accurate and effective.

A good thesaurus suggests substitutes for the idea of a word, but not all these are true synonyms. Context is vital. Placing alternative words in the same sentence to see if they actually make sense is a way of checking their suitability. But it’s not foolproof, so a good dictionary is essential.

My chosen dictionary is the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. For word choices, I prefer the 1987 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus. It sits close by my desk. However, I try to dig the best word from my overloaded memory first: it’s good mental exercise. Other books of words, which I consult when the pertinent term evades me, live on my reference shelf, behind me.

So, to this week’s words, which can be used as opposites:

Clownish – Roget lists these headers: clumsy, amusing, funny, ridiculous. Under the sub-heading ‘ridiculous’ it lists another 42 choices, including ludicrous, grotesque, risible, contemptible, outlandish and crackpot.

Serious – Roget lists the following headers: great, attentive, wise, resolute, intending, important, dangerous, serious, dull, and heinous. From ‘wise’ flow a further 65 options, including rational, profound, responsible, objective, enlightened, prudent, and unbigoted.

Let’s look at usage for clownish first:

‘Boris Johnson and Donald Trump share a clownish aspect in their presentation to the electorate that fools many into believing they’re more in touch with the common man than they really are.’

Now let’s look at serious:

‘World politics is in real need of serious politicians who understand the root causes of problems and are willing and able to do something about them rather than indulge in soundbites and self-glorification.’

These two sentences illustrate usage for these antonyms. In the first, we could easily substitute ‘ludicrous’, ‘grotesque’, ‘risible’, ‘contemptible’, ‘outlandish’ and ‘crackpot’ for ‘clownish’, without compromising the meaning of the sentence. In the second, we could use ‘rational’, ‘profound’, ‘responsible’, ‘objective’, ‘enlightened’, ‘prudent’, and ‘unbigoted’ for ‘serious’, though in each case the sentence would have a subtly different meaning. The selection of the right adjective would be dependent on the mood and meaning the writer wished to convey.

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

This is the third example of antonyms in this series. I’ll present more as the run progresses, as these often provide useful contrasts in writing. I welcome your comments, questions and observations. Please have your say in the ‘comments’ section below.

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