Looking for the Best Word? Tip #20

Word cloud created on prowritingaid.com

A series offering writers help to make their work more accessible, interesting, varied, accurate and effective by exploring similar and dissimilar words. Also giving language learners some insights into the peculiarities of English.

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 whether they actually make sense is one way of checking suitability. But it’s not foolproof, so a good dictionary is essential.

I prefer the 1987 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus for word selection. And my dictionary of choice is the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. But I try to dig the best word from my overcrowded memory first: it’s good mental exercise. Other books of words, which I consult when the appropriate term escapes me, sit on the reference shelf behind me.

So, to this week’s words: Incisive/Dull

Incisive- Roget lists these headers: keen, assertive, concise, forceful. Under the sub-heading ‘keen’ are another 21 alternatives, including acute, sharp, biting, derisive, and acrimonious.

Dull – Roget lists these headers: assuage, blunt, render insensible, muted, nonresonant, dim, soft-hued, colourless, grey, ignorant, unintelligent, feeble, inactive, impassive, inexcitable, cheerless, melancholic, serious, tedious, dull. Under the sub-heading ‘tedious’ are a further 69 alternatives, including uninteresting, unexciting, dry, dull, dreary, long-winded, boring, monotonous and uniform.

These are two words that can operate as antonyms and it’s in that capacity I’m examining them.

Let’s look at usage for ‘Incisive’.

‘In her dissertation on the current trend of fashion photographers to artificially improve the appearance of models, Jenny used incisive arguments to demonstrate her passionate dislike of such inauthenticity.’

Here, we can use ‘acute’, ‘sharp’ and ‘biting’ as replacements for ‘incisive’ without materially altering the sense of the sentence. However, if ‘derisive’ or ‘acrimonious’ were substituted, the sense of the statement would change to something indicating insult. The original sentence expresses Jenny’s dislike but fails to enlarge this into condemnation. So, dictionary definitions would help the writer here if a subtle approach was intended.

Let’s examine how we might use ‘dull’.

‘Joe’s arguments on artificial enhancement of fashion models were dull; lacking fervour, passion or bite.’

Here, we could substitute ‘tedious’, ‘unexciting’, ‘dreary’ or ‘boring’ for the original ‘dull’ without altering the meaning. If we used ‘uniform’ or ‘dry’ instead we would be making a subtle comment that may, or may not, change the intended meaning.

Antonyms can be difficult to discover and thesauruses generally fail to give examples. When utterly lost for such an opposite, I grab ‘The New Nuttall Dictionary of English Synonyms and Antonyms’ published 1986, which generally resolves my dilemma. I’m sure other such volumes are readily available.

For language learners, there’s a particularly good group page on Facebook, which you can access via this link.

I welcome observations and suggestions here. Please use the comments section below for your ideas and thoughts.

By the way, today’s Google search for ‘Writers Help’ brought up 34,100,000 results. One post from this series was 5th in the list and a second was 6th! So, you’re in good company when you read this post.