Le mot juste

Part of my job as an ESL editor is to help authors choose the best word to precisely convey his or her intended meaning—le mot juste. For example, the results of an experiment can indicate, suggest, imply, or mean something. A laboratory scientist can employ a technique, method, procedure, or system. Which word conveys exactly the right nuance? The answer depends on context, and choosing correctly can be difficult for non-native speakers, who may not have the familiarity that enables most native speakers to discern subtle connotational distinctions between synonyms. The combination of a thesaurus and a dictionary can help, but writers too often use the thesaurus without also consulting the dictionary. One of my favorite reference book combines the best of both dictionary and thesaurus: S. I. Hayakawa’s Funk & Wagnalls Modern Guide to Synonyms and Related Words (1968).* (Hayakawa was a linguist, a semanticist, and an English professor, and he also served California in the United States Senate from 1976 to 1983.)

The book is a collection of essays comparing groups of synonyms (and sometimes antonyms) collected under head words that tie the synonyms together. For example, the essay headed by the word mean discusses the uses of the related words connote, denote, imply, indicate, signify, suggest, and symbolize. Here are some excerpts from the essay:

Mean is the least formal and the most general in embracing every kind of import a sign may have….

….Indicate stresses a rough approximation of literal meaning, whereas imply stresses the unstated associative or peripheral overtones present in a sign or word….Imply, when compared with suggest, stresses subtlety or complexity of association; suggest stresses tentative alternatives in meaning or a permissible variety of interpretations.

The deficient essay discusses the differences between inadequate, poor, and unsatisfactory. The normal essay discusses natural, ordinary, regular, and typical. The suppose essay discusses assume, conjecture, guess, imagine, postulate, and surmise. I never fail to learn something new every time I pick up the book. The next time you’re in your favorite used bookstore, look for a copy in the reference section.

*Hayakawa, S.I., ed., Funk & Wagnalls Modern Guide to Synonyms and Related Words (New York: Funk&Wagnalls, 1968), is the original edition, which is no longer in print; I obtained my treasured copy from a used bookseller. A 1987 reprint with a slightly different title is also available used: Choose the Right Word: A Modern Guide to Synonyms and Related Words (New York: Perennial Library, 1987). In addition, a revised edition is currently in print: Choose the Right Word: A Contemporary Guide to Selecting the Precise Word for Every Situation. 2nd ed. Eugene Ehrlich, revising editor (New York: HarperPerennial, 1994).

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