Looking for the Best Word? Tip #29

Word cloud via ProWritingaid.com

First, an apology to regular readers. I somehow managed not to post anything last week. I can tell you I added 2,298 words to the current WIP, resolved an issue with the Student Loan Company for my daughter in Australia, and began constructing a new length of garden fencing. But I’ve really no idea how I came to miss writing and posting a piece here. So, sorry about that!

There’s help here for writers trying to make their work more accessible, interesting, varied, accurate and effective by exploring similar and dissimilar words. The series also gives language learners insights into some peculiarities of the English language.

A good thesaurus provides alternatives for the idea of a word, but not all those are true synonyms. Context matters. Placing synonyms into a sentence to see if they make sense is one way of checking suitability. But it’s not foolproof, so a good dictionary is also essential.

My chosen dictionary is the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. And I use the 1987 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus for word selection. But I also have the WordWeb app installed for those occasions when the apposite word evades me and I’m in a hurry. I generally try to dig the best word from my overloaded memory first, though: it’s good mental exercise. Other books of words, which I consult when an appropriate term eludes me, live on the reference shelves behind me.

So far, I’ve looked at synonyms and antonyms. But have you come across contronyms? These are words that have two definitions that oppose each other. English has a number of such confusing words, so I’m going to look at some of these in this series of posts. Context is essential to indicate the intended meaning of these words to avoid confusion, unless, of course, the writer’s purpose is to perplex readers.

So, to this week’s words: dust, dusting, dusted, and trim, trimming, trimmed.

Dust – Roget gives these headers for the verb: overlay, let fall, variegate, and clean.

Trim – Roget lists these headers for the verb: adjust, equalize, cut, make conform, make smaller, shorten, dissemble, tergiversate, clean, and decorate.

Let’s look at usage for dust as a verb.

‘Jenny was an experienced flyer, often employed by farmers to dust their crops.’ ‘Jenny was a reliable cleaner, often employed by socialites to dust their furniture.’ Most readers will probably understand these sentences. However, context fails to point out the difference in meaning. When a crop is ‘dusted’ something is added to it, usually to prevent pestilence. When an item of furniture is ‘dusted’ something, namely dust, is removed to improve its appearance.

So, we could clarify these sentences as follows: ‘Jenny was an experienced flyer, often employed to dust their crops with pesticide.’ ‘Jenny was a reliable cleaner, often employed by socialites to remove dust from their home furnishings.’

Now let’s look at usage for trim, again, as a verb.

‘Tom trimmed the tree in preparation for its intended use.’ To ‘trim’ a tree can be to either remove extraneous branches or to add decoration to it, as at Xmas. So, again, context is vital to make the sentence clear.

Let’s try again.

‘Tom trimmed the branches from the tree, leaving the central trunk ready to be used as a pole.’ ‘Tom trimmed the tree with bright baubles and tinsel in readiness for the Christmas party.’

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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