Looking for the Best Word? Tip #34

Word cloud via Prowritingaid.com

Help for writers who want to make their work more accessible, interesting, varied, accurate and effective by using the best words. The series also provides language learners with 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 one way to check 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 downloaded the Kindle version of Kathy Steinemann’s ‘The Writer’s Lexicon’ to consult whilst editing my fiction.

However, I mostly try to dig the best word from my overloaded memory first: good mental exercise. Other books of words, which I consult when a word eludes me, live on reference shelves behind me.

So, to this week’s words: Yell/Whisper

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

Yell – Roget lists these headers: feel pain, loudness, cry, vociferate, rejoicing, weep. Under the sub-heading ‘vociferate’ are another 44 substitutes including shout, bawl, cheer, hoot, roar, bellow, strain one’s voice, and be loud.

Whisper – Roget lists the following headers: small quantity, sound faint, imply, hint, rumour, voice, speak low, detraction. Under the sub-heading ‘sound faint’ are a further 48 alternatives including lower one’s voice, murmur, drone, gurgle, swish, die on the ear, and thud.

Let’s look at usage for yell.

‘There’s really no need for you to yell to get your point across; a quiet word can often produce much more impact.’

Here, we could substitute any of the above alternatives, except ‘cheer’ and ‘hoot’ in the sentence.

Now let’s see how we can use whisper.

‘If you wish to keep your information secret, it’s probably best to whisper it to your contact rather than shout it across the room.’

Here, we can replace ‘whisper’ with ‘lower your voice’ and ‘murmur’ to say the same thing. But using the other substitutes would either require a rewriting of the sentence or produce a different meaning altogether. An illustration of how the dictionary becomes essential for those unfamiliar with the words.

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.

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