Looking for the Best Word? Tip #22

Word cloud via Prowritingaid.com

One day late: sorry!

This series offers writers help to make their work more accessible, interesting, varied, accurate and effective by exploring similar and dissimilar words. It also gives 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 word: Keen

Keen – Roget lists these headers: keen, sharp, inter, striking, cold, willing, contending, felt, lament, witty, desiring, condolence. Under the sub-heading ‘willing’ are a further 77 alternative adjectives, including assenting, consenting, prepared, active, observant, attempting, cooperative, agreeing, obedient, submitting, servile, desiring, hoping, and intending. And, under the sub-heading ‘lament’ are another 48 verb alternatives including grieve, bewail, mourn, wail, beat the breast, carry on, bellyache, and grouse.

As can be seen from the wide variety of synonyms, ‘keen’ is a word with many meanings. It is one of a large number of such words in English and therefore care is needed in its use.

Let’s look at some usages for ‘keen’.

‘Mandy, keen as mustard for Kevin’s success, worked secretly in the background to help him achieve his ambition.’

Here, we could directly replace ‘keen (as mustard)’ with ‘hoping’, but it wouldn’t carry the same depth of eagerness. In fact, ‘eager’ is another synonym that would work here. Many of the other suggested synonyms wouldn’t work at all, if we wanted to keep the real meaning of the sentence. Try replacing ‘keen’ with some of the other suggestions and you’ll see that, even with slight changes in the syntax, the meaning isn’t as clear, or, in some cases even similar.

‘In many Arab cultures, it is common for women to keen at the death of a relative.’

Here, ‘wail’, would be a suitable synonym for ‘keen’, and ‘beat the breast’ would produce the same sort of feeling. However, the use of ‘bellyache’ or ‘grouse’ would introduce an insulting element of condemnation that would alter the meaning of the sentence substantially. Definitely time to consult the dictionary if you’re uncertain of the meaning of any synonym suggested.

For language learners, there’s a great group page on Facebook, which you can find through this link.

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

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