The Lightning Bug: Word Choice in a Thesaurus Driven World

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.

-Mark Twain

With the advent of new technology, there is an undeniable shift in the techniques and themes of literature. This is a trend that has permeated history. With the replacement of typewriters by digital word processors, we were introduced to a new ease of revision; with the invention of reading tablets like the Nook or the Kindle, we saw an alternative to spacious personal libraries; and with the increasing accessibility of the internet we’ve experienced the obsoleting of physical dictionaries and thesauruses.

In a world where searching for synonyms is as simple as a few clicks — where mental vocabularies have been superseded by digital dictionaries — how can anyone argue the artistry of good diction? How can we still be expected to grasp the subtleties of word choice?

The first step forward is, I argue, actually a step back. It’s a common technique for painters to practice the fundamentals of their craft by returning to their roots — that is, the artistic movements defined by the old masters. Impressionism, realism, surrealism — these trends accentuate different, yet equally valuable, skills for the modern artist. As writers, we would do well to copy the success of this technique by returning to the work of our own literary forefathers. William Shakespeare, John Milton, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain — the names that inspire you should also inform your writing. See how they craft words to create meaning. Shakespeare is known for inventing diction — words like undress, gnarled, and lackluster. HIs grasp of sound and the relationship between intonation and definition is masterful, and borders on induced synesthesia. Take gnarled for example — in some way, doesn’t the word seem to express itself in the way it sounds? The phonogram “gn” wants to twist itself over the back of your tongue, bending like a gnarled old man and twisting like a gnarled tree nub. This style of technique falls somewhere in between onomatopoeia and connotation (I like to call it phonic connotation), yet is a powerful tool for creating depth.

What, though, of style, fluency, and connotation? The application of these techniques in regards to word choice are just as vital to the composition of masterful prose, yet they can, at times, be difficult to reconcile with each other.

Style — or the application of syntax, word choice, and tone by an author in a specific work — is perhaps the most fundamental element of strong literature. It encompasses all at once the voice of the narrator, the tendencies inherent within the setting, and the thematic aspirations of the writer. This technique is built upon a cornerstone of diction, and therefore must be kept in mind whenever crafting literature on a microscopic level. Let’s take an example sentence: “The man ran away.” The words man, ran, and away all bespeak a simplistic style — perhaps coming from a children’s book — however, should we choose a different set of words the style changes drastically. Let’s try this: “The gentleman fled the scene.” The words we’ve substituted have the same meaning, yet suddenly the sentence sounds like it comes from a work of noir fiction.

Of course, the stylistic change is also, in part, a result of connotation. Connotation, or the commonly understood meaning or feeling that a word invokes, is the counterpart of denotation — the dictionary definition of that same word. The difference here might be best understood with an example. Take the word, “home.” The dictionary definition is nearly the same as “house” — a place a residence or refuge — yet “home” implies a feeling of comfort and belonging. That sense of security and family that gives additional meaning to the word is its connotative definition. One of the best criterion by which to determine word choice is how the connotation will fit within the meaning and tone of your sentence. Saying, “After being gone for so long, I couldn’t wait to return home,” is a much better sentence than, “After being gone for so long, I couldn’t wait to return to my house.”

Fluency is a broad term, but one that shouldn’t be absent from a conversation on word choice. Fluency can account for the entirety of a work — describing how the themes and characters flow within the narrative — or it can be used on a microscopic level — wherein it deals with how words, phrases, and even paragraphs flow aurally and conceptually. In regards to word choice, I refer to fluency of the latter definition. Read the following sentences, and pay attention to how the words sound in your mind; you can even read aloud to feel how the words play across your tongue.

“In the dark sunset, I could practically feel invisible things on my back.”

“In the flickering twilight, I could feel the whispers of unseen shadows dance across my back.”

Doesn’t the second sentence sound much more fluid? That’s because the words fit together in more ways than just by their definitions. Take the words “practically” and “feel;” although they’re right next to each other in the sentence, there is no strong phonic relation between them. “Practically” is full of hard consonants — “p,” “t,” and “c” — while “feel” is made of soft consonants — “f” and “l.” In the second sentence though, you get the phrase, “unseen shadows dance across.” Each word connects to the next via a soft “s” (or “-ce” in “dance”), plus you get the repetition of “d” in both “shadows” and “dance.” The repetition of consonants in close enough proximity to each other to sense the phonic echo is called consonance, while the repetition of vowels in the same manner is called assonance. When this repetition happens at the beginning of two words — such as in “tummy tuck” — the technique is known as alliteration.

Most often, these techniques to create fluency are found in poetry, but it would be a mistake to underestimate their usefulness in prose. Similarly, it can be worthwhile to explore the techniques of repetition, internal rhyme, and slant rhyme. Sentence fluency is, by far, the most difficult aspect of word choice, but to completely cast it aside will cripple the readability of your work. Take Dr. Seuss for example. He is a master of crafting poetic technique into fluent copy.

Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.

-Dr. Seuss

Yes, in today’s world a thesaurus is always at your fingertips, but the availability of creative word choice doesn’t suddenly make more word choice creative. The same criteria and techniques that guided the hands of great writers throughout history apply to crafting prose now. As always, it’s a matter of making informed choices.

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