Looking for the Best Word? Tip #16

Word cloud created via tagul.com

Read this post and you’ll be in good company. Today’s Google search for ‘Writers Help’ brought up 72,300,000 results. One post from this series was the 4th in the list and a second was 9th!

The series offers help for writers to 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 words, which consider the misuse of a phrase: late teens.

‘Average June temperatures in UK are usually in the late teens.’

Late? What’s late about temperatures? Late relates to time, not quantity or degree. What the writer (or speaker) means is ‘high teens’, which has a relationship with number and degree of heat.

The correct usage for ‘late teens’ would be: ‘In UK it’s legal to consume alcohol when you reach your late teens, or, more accurately, from your eighteenth birthday.’ This uses ‘late’ in the sense of time and expresses the idea properly.

Many speakers and writers misuse these qualifiers without considering what the words actually mean. Whilst many people will probably tolerate such incorrect usage in speech, it’s less easy to forgive in writing. And we are writers, so let’s get it right, eh?

A slightly different take on the series this week. But something I needed to get off my chest!

Do you have phrases that are pet hates? Use the comments space below to let me know, and maybe I’ll feature them in a future post.

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