One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes describes the gulf between the almost right word and the right word: “’Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Invariably clever and frequently profound, Twain draws a distinction that couldn’t be much bigger. What’s more powerful? A tiny insect or fearsome force of nature?
No wonder I fret over my choice of words. Or is it brood? Or, better still, agonize? See what I mean?
That’s the blessing and curse of the English language. There are so many words from which to choose — by one estimate more than 170,000 in current use. Yet, each word conveys a different meaning.
It’s possible, I suppose, to write with almost right words — to even make a point in some vague fashion. It’s impossible to write with clarity without the right words.
There’s an added benefit to using the right words. They usually work better than a boatload of almost right words.
That’s particularly true in replacing adverbs — words that modify other words, usually verbs. Novelist Stephen King once proclaimed the road to hell is paved with adverbs.
I could recount appallingly how I ran quickly around the track until I tired badly and struggled mightily to catch my breath. In other — and, I’d contend, better — words, I sprinted until I crumpled spent and gasping.
Word choice sometimes comes down to big and little. In most cases, less is more. I admit, though, I sometimes succumb to the temptation to use bigger words when it would be better to eschew obfuscation.
Ultimately, the best choice remains the right choice, that one, wonderful word that conveys exactly the intended meaning.
’Tis the difference between the lighting bug and the lightning.