“You keep using that word…”: The Princess Bride and Effective Word Choice

Guest post by Rachel Stuckey

Vizzini didn’t have much of an imagination. He couldn’t conceive of the implausible, possible, or even highly probable occurring if it fell outside the scope of his carefully crafted scheme. Inigo eventually questions the precision of Vizzini’s usage, but the proud Sicilian can’t even conceive of being wrong, and that’s when he finally gets it right. For Vizzini, the idea that he would misspeak is certainly inconceivable.

What is not inconceivable conceivable is that we could all use a little Inigo in our lives, especially now that our lives have taken on a much more textual character. Misspeaking is easily forgotten, but in texts, emails, and social media posts our faulty usage is remembered forever on a server somewhere.

 

I’m by no means the grammar police. In fact, I’m a fan of semantic drift and the organic quality of common usage—if everyone thinks that is what it means, then that is what it means now, so get over it! (My new geek crush is Ammon Shea, author of Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation.) I have no problem ending sentences with prepositions, beginning sentences with and or because, and I’m happy to split infinitives all over the place.

 

And I’m certainly not wasting my time with a rant about the usual slip-ups that are editors’ bread and butter: homonym mix-ups, spell check misses, and troublesome words (dude, there’s a reason every writer’s handbook includes a list of these words—they’re trouble).

 

But I what I must protest are outright wrong words. Now, you (and I) can be forgiven for being a card shark sharp, or lip singing syncing, or speaking out of tune turn, because translating the spoken word into print is tricky business—and an editor can help with that, or you can blame it on autocorrect.

 

I usually look up the answer. I don’t assume I’m right.

 

We should all try to remember that skeptic and cynic are not the same thing, that infamous is not a fancy way of saying famous, and that you have to ensure you are insured. But frankly, these are all on the troublesome list because they are common mistakes.

 

What about words that don’t meet that benign “common mistake” standard? The words that raise eyebrows because they simply don’t mean what you think they mean? Or words that are ostensibly synonyms but which have distinct meanings that do make a difference?

 

Because I’m not some maniacal editor who keeps a running list of her friends’ and clients’ usage faux pas, I’m drawing a bit of a blank. But here’s a few I ran across just this week: agnostic does not mean undecided or ambivalent, inclined does not mean likely, we cannot envision the past, we have to imagine it, and of course, while inconceivable and unthinkable may be synonyms, they aren’t quite the same thing. So, when it comes to wrong words, what’s a Vizzini to do?

 

Queries from friends about grammar and usage enter my various inboxes now and then, and I’m happy to oblige. But what my friends probably don’t realize is that I usually look up the answer. I don’t assume I’m right—and even when I feel pretty confident that something is wrong, I still look it up—just to be sure there isn’t some definition or usage I’m unfamiliar with. Good editors look up words all the time. We are professional Inigos, and we take it to the next level to find the word that means what we need it to.

 

Thank the goddess we’ve got dictionaries literally at our fingertips (and I mean that literally literally).

 

Good editors look up words all the time. We are professional Inigos.

 

Test Your Word Usage

When you find yourself using a word that seems uncommon or sophisticated or simply isn’t part of your everyday banal vocabulary, apply the following test:

  1. Do you know if this word is a verb, noun, adjective, or adverb?
  2. Can you explain what the word means?
  3. Are you absolutely sure that’s what it means?
  4. Can you name a synonym off the top of your head?
  5. Have you seen the word used in print recently?

If you answered no to any of the above questions, look it up!

 

Easy Ways to Look it Up

Gone are the days when looking up the word involved carefully leafing through onionskin paper, or even recklessly thumbing through a dusty paperback. There are many ways you can check a word without missing a beat (or sending me an email or text):

  1. In MS Word, highlight the word, right click and select “Look Up.”
  2. In MS Word, highlight the word, right click and select “Synonym.”
  3. Swipe to your Dashboard and type the word in the dictionary applet (Mac users).
  4. Download a dictionary applet and use as directed (Windows users).
  5. Type “define: [type your word here]” into Google and search.
  6. Bookmark your favourite dictionary and keep the page open on your tricked-out multiple display workspace.
  7. Add a dictionary app to your phone or tablet and you can look something up without having to change windows on your laptop.

 

These days, you can get digital versions of the OED, M-W and CanOx dictionaries for multiple platforms, but you needn’t use a canonical dictionary to Inigo yourself. Dictionary.com, Wiktionary or even Urban Dictionary will do in a pinch.

 

The important thing is to be your own Inigo. Whenever you choose a word that deep down you know you want to use so that you’ll sound smarter, more educated, better-read, more authorial or perhaps cooler, hipper, and more with-it than you actually are, LOOK IT UP!

 

Say it with me. “I keep using this word, I need to make sure it means what I think it means.”

 

the face of Rachel Stuckey, post authorRachel Stuckey is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto and recently returned from a trip around the world. She edits a wide range of materials but specializes in educational resources. She dabbles in travel writing and pens the occasional book for young readers. Follow her at rachelstuckey.com or thenomadiceditor.com.

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