Looking for the Best Word? Tip #33

Word cloud via Prowritingaid.com

Help here for writers who want to make their work more accessible, interesting, varied, accurate and effective by using similar and dissimilar words. The series also provides language learners with some insights into the oddities of the English language.

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

My dictionary of choice is the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. And, from preference, I use the 1987 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus for word selection. I’ve also installed WordWeb on my Mac for those times when the apposite word evades me and I’m in a hurry. Similarly, I’ve now downloaded the Kindle version of Kathy Steinemann’s book ‘The Writer’s Lexicon’ to consult whilst editing my fiction.

However, I generally try to dig the best word from my overloaded memory first: 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, to this week’s word: Cleave

Cleave belongs to an odd category of words known as contronyms. A contronym is a word that is its own antonym; a single word that can have two opposing meanings!

Cleave- Roget lists these headers: sunder and bisect. Under the sub-heading ‘sunder’ are another (49) substitutes including disunite, divide, dissect, split, dock, behead, force open, and rive.

Cleave to- Roget lists only one header: cohere. Under this heading are another (44) substitutes including grow together, combine, hug, embrace, cling, stick like a leech, consolidate and freeze.

Let’s look at usage for cleave.

‘Thrug the Decapitator was famed for her axe, a double-headed weapon she frequently wielded to cleave the heads of her enemies from their bodies.’

Here, we can substitute ‘cleave’ with ‘disunite’ and ‘split’ without changing the sentence structure. If we wish to use any of the other suggestions, we’ll need to rewrite the sentence.

‘Poor little Peter was so lacking in confidence, he’d cleave to his mother at the school gates until a kindly teacher came to persuade him into school.’

Here, we can readily use ‘cling’ and ‘stick like a leech’ in place of ‘cleave’ but ‘hug’ and ‘embrace’ alter the tone of the sentence. The other substitutes wouldn’t really work at all in the context of this sentence.

I deliberately reversed the usual gender of the subjects in these two sentences, as I prefer to avoid gender clichés when possible.

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.

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.