Looking for the Best Word? Tip #64

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A series of posts for word lovers. Offering help for writers and language learners, these posts look at many different aspects of the world of words in the hope of stimulating your curiosity and enhancing your creativity.

This week’s words: Go, Isocolon, Most unique, Caught with his/her pants down,


Go: belongs to an odd category of words known as contronyms. A contronym is a word that is its own antonym; a word that has two opposing meanings! It can mean ‘to proceed’, but it can also mean ‘to fail or give up or out’.

Go – Roget’s thesaurus lists the following headers: separate, period, periodicity, operate, vigorousness, be in motion, travel, walk, recede, excrete, disappear, vigour, function, restlessness, and courage. Under the sub-heading ‘function’ are a further 25 alternatives including work, go, carry on, do duty for, and hold a place. Under the opposite heading, ‘recede’ are another 55 substitutes including retire, ebb, decline, go away, depart, make way, back away, and decrease. Also, because ‘Go’ is used in so many expression, there are a further 127 listings, each with its own set of subheadings, to explore. ‘Go’ is listed as both a noun and a verb. Here, I am examining a restricted usage of the word in its context as a contronym and therefore I’m looking at it as a verb. It’s one of the words that makes English such a difficult language to learn because it has so many, often contradictory, meanings.

Let’s look at usage for Go:

‘My old car really used to go, until the accumulated miles started to make it go.’ This is an acceptable sentence in English, though its in-built ambiguity suggests it could be better expressed. The first use of ‘go’ indicates the car used to travel at speed, was a ‘goer’, functioned well as a motorcar. The second use of ‘go’, at the end of the sentence, is a form of shorthand where the word ‘go’ is understood to be followed by such adjectives as ‘wrong’, ‘downhill’, and ‘bad’. So the last use of ‘go’ here is an indication that the car is no longer able to function as well as it did; old age and much usage have made the vehicle no longer fit for purpose. In the mouths of some characters, this sort of expression could also be used to describe their partners. ‘Joyce was a real goer until she started to go off.’ ‘James could go all night until old age made him go down hill.’

Figure of speech:

Isocolon: A figure in which a sentence is made up of two or more parts that are effectively equivalent in structure, length and rhythm. Depending on the number of these parts, it may be a bicolon, tricolon, or a tetracolon. Possibly the most famous example of a tricolon is Julius Caesar’s reported statement regarding his ‘conquest’ of Britain: ‘Veni, vidi, Vici.’ (I came, I saw, I conquered.)

‘Is not the love of your son enough to stay your hand, is not the love of your daughter enough to stay your hand?’ ‘Will you eat with me, will you stay with me, will you lay with me?’ ‘I will shop for food, you will shop for clothes, the kids will shop for toys.’


Redundancies are words serving no semantic purpose. In speech, they act as spacers, giving the speaker time to think. But in writing, except when representing natural conversation, they impede the reader’s progress.

This week’s example: ‘Most unique

The word ‘unique’ is an absolute. That means it isn’t subject to qualification: you can’t have anything that is either more or less unique, since the word itself means it is without parallel. Therefore, attaching any adjective to ‘unique’ is a false move that will show the ignorance of the writer. Something is either unique or not.

Cliché; a cliché is a stereotyped or hackneyed expression; a phrase, opinion or other element of language that’s been so overused it no longer holds any power. However, clichés usually come into being as the result of their original effective ability to describe a situation or quality. Their use should be sparing and appropriate. In dialogue, they’re acceptable, providing the speaking character would use such expressions.

Caught with his/her pants down: a phrase that means someone has been found out doing something they shouldn’t.

‘Stepping into the bedroom, Mary discovered her husband in the arms of another woman; caught him with his pants down.’ In this sentence, the expression might actually be accurate, given the compromising situation! We might try this alternative, however, if we want to avoid ambiguity as well as the cliché: ‘Stepping into the bedroom, Mary found her husband in the arms of another woman and knew she’d discovered him in the act of adultery.’

‘Frank watched on CTV as Freda opened the till and took out some cash. He went to the shop counter to confront her and let her know she’d been caught with her pants down.’ Here, we might avoid the cliché in this way: ‘Frank, having seen on CTV that Freda was taking cash from the till, went to the shop counter to let her know he’d witnessed her thieving from him.’ As an aside to this particular cliché, it’s worth noting that in US English ‘pants’ are trousers, an outer garment. In British English ‘pants’ are items of intimate underwear. Clearly the lack of such items means different things in each version of the language!

Language learners might find this link useful for pronunciation queries, and you’ll reach a great group page on Facebook if you click this link.

I contribute a monthly column to an online magazine, Pandora’s Box Gazette where I also deal with the use of words. To take a look, click this link.

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

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