Looking for the Best Word? Tip #15

Word cloud via tagul.com

If you read this post, you’re in good company. I recently did a Google search for ‘Writer Help’ to answer a Quora question. The search brought up 270,000,000 results. 2 of the posts from this series were listed on the first page in the 1st 10 results!

A series offering to help writers make their work more varied, accessible, interesting, accurate and effective by exploring similar and dissimilar words.

A good thesaurus provides substitutes 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 if they actually make sense is a way of checking their suitability. But it’s not foolproof, so a good dictionary is essential.

My dictionary of choice is the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. And I prefer to use the 1987 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus for my word selection; it sits close by my desk. However, I try to dig the best word from my crowded 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 word, wind.

Wind – Roget lists these headers: insubstantial thing, changeable thing, disable, be curved, voidance, circle, rotate, gas, air, flow, wind, smell, play music, detect, empty talk, digestive disorders, fatigue. Under the sub-heading ‘Wind: air in motion’ are another 223 alternatives, including draught, jet stream, sirocco, monsoon, breeze, puff, gale, typhoon, and sandstorm.

Wind is a good example of one of the problems learners find with English: as can be seen, the word has a single spelling but a multitude of meanings. Such words are called homographs; they are spelt the same but mean different things. The most obvious definitions include wind (rhymes with tinned), ‘movement of air’, and wind (rhymes with blind) ‘to rotate or spool’. Here, I’m looking at the movement of air.

Let’s look at usage:

  1. ‘She approaches the ranks of microphones and reporters, leaving her escort to watch her rear, the hem of her skirt flapping wildly in the gusting wind.’
  2. ‘Still means Earth’s hurricane force winds are only equivalent to a strong breeze, but it chucks plenty of dust and light debris around.’
  3. ‘I love to run over hills and fields with the wind in my hair and the sun on my skin, the dew on the grass under my feet.’
  4. ‘They’ll be in poor shape anyway, following the violent storms, lethal winds, warfare and civil riots.’

These four sentences come from ‘Blood Red Dust’ my recent science fiction release. Can they be improved?

Sentence 1 describes a scene from a news report. The ‘flapping’ reinforces ‘gusting’ here. I could have used, ‘…skirt flapping wildly in the gusts.’ But does that paint such a definitive picture?

Sentence 2 explains that Mars’ thin atmosphere acts differently from the more substantial airflow of Earth. ‘…hurricane force winds…’ paints a powerful picture of strength, while ‘…strong breeze…’ illustrates the gentler power of the atmosphere on the red planet. (By the way, ‘The Martian’, an excellent film in many respects, misrepresented this aspect of Mars when it showed enormous destructive power from the wind. The atmosphere’s so thin that strong winds are improbable, though the fine dust of the surface is carried on the currents and can blank out the surface for weeks at a time.)

Sentence 3 is a description of the joys one of the colonists misses about Earth. Here, the use of the simple ‘wind’ allows the reader to form a generic picture of the woman passing through the atmosphere of the home planet. A more specific noun might conjure an inappropriately suggestive image.

Sentence 4 is a comment from one of the settlers regarding conditions on Earth. Here, the use of ‘lethal’ to qualify ‘winds’ produces a picture of deaths occurring in the unfortunate population.

The use of synonyms for wind is particularly helpful when constructing lyrical writing: ‘An icy blast almost ripped the open door from its hinges when Greg entered the cabin.’ ‘Silver birch seeds float idly on the breeze and dandelion fluff hovers on the gentle current.’ Or, ‘Not a breath of air disturbed the trees, no leaf moved in the stillness.’

For a short introduction to this series, please click this link. I welcome your comments and suggestions here. Please use the comments section for your ideas and thoughts.

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